Atonement (2007) (R)

This review contains SPOILERS!
I don't think it's any coincidence that the play Briony Tallis writes at the beginning of "Atonement" concerns a heroine named Ararbella. Arabella, is also the progagonist in a book called The Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox. Lennox is a cohort of Austen, who Ian McEwan references in the title pages of his novel, upon which the movie is based. The Female Quixote involves a woman raised on the brink of society who doesn't understand social norms because all her learning comes from cheap French Romances...pulp fiction for impressionable female minds. While the book's gender commentary and its classism may fade in comparison with McEwan's more perceptive work, it would seem that he had to have come across The Female Quixote and thus reinvents Arabella as Briony writing a play.
The complexities are many and perhaps I do not articulate them very well. The point being, the movie and the novel are very conscious of playing with perceptions. For a novel to be good, it must follow a certain trajectory and when, too engrossed with literature, you find yourself placing tropes of fiction onto real life, you may become an author of other people's lives which, if you are to believe this movie, is nothing short of murder.
The novel's prose is something rich and lovely, achingly sad and filled with contemplative meta-levels on writing itself and the definitions of words that get included only for a moment in the movie when, laying on the grass in the heat of the day, Briony asks Cecilia what it would be like to be another person.
At the center of the movie there is a misunderstanding concerning Robbie, Cecilia, and Briony, playing by James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, and Saoirse Ronan.A thirteen year old girl's imaginative mind makes everything feel like a fairy tale and thus, everything is either chivalrous or evil. For being such a word grounded in definitions and literature itself, Atonement translates very well to the screen with a few minor changes.
Childlike imagination, or perhaps the critique of such an idea, causes Briony to think the worst of Robbie and maybe even Cecilia at every turn of the first part of the movie. She selects herself as the sole voice of reason and the camera allows for this freedom, following her stiff walking with quick editing and rapidly tracking shots in the opening scene.
The music to the film also allows for the creativity of fiction to be manifest as the typewriter becomes the percussion to the soundtrack. Everything in the movie screams the art of writing, and yet the irony of the novel is lost simply because of the mediums there are portrayed in.
The second part of the movie deals with the consequences of Briony's creative liberties and quest for altruistic justice. Her 'fanciful' ways caused her to err and so she becomes a nurse during WWII as a way to serve penance for her deed. We see her, hunched over a sink, viciously scrubbing her hands, attempting to remove the sight of blood or the stench of death. Clearly, she hates both what she is doing in that moment and herself. Yet, she has to, because it still leaves her in power of her own decisions.
Cecilia and Robbie however, have been stripped of their power and live through the war in vastly different ways than Briony.
There is an epilogue of sorts to the movie, a third act reveal in which we go back and reconsider everything that we've seen and we have to reevaluate Briony once again. I will say watching the movie the second time allowed me to realize new complexities of the themes of creativity and poetic liberties. It's quite a feat of screenwriting and movie composition.
"Atonement" isn't perfect, mainly because it is so difficult to translate a book dedicated to the written word into a movie. The ghosts of Ian McEwan's words are here, seen in the illustrious costumes and the rich staging of the film. It looks like poetry.
But then, at the end, when Briony looks at the camera and asks if we think creative liberties are acts of kindness, I find myself thinking 'no'. I think Briony remains a villain, desperately trying to atone for her sins the only way she knows how: by writing.
And this is what makes the movie so achingly sad. It's all an illusion of repentance, but misplaced repentance because at the end, when asking if this act was righteous and kind, I find it would have been better to never have thought as a child.

Score: ★★★½

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