Tuesday, January 08, 2008

'Atonement'-- Is it Humanly Possible?

We are now entering the time of year I call the 'dead zone' because it usually lacks movies of Oscar caliber. This may be my last review for a while. Nothing much tends to show up of that sort between now and Easter in a normal year.

It is then all the more encouraging then to find Joe Wright's adaptation of the McEwan novel 'Atonement' for the silver screen is playing now, though in limited release. The movie is 2 hours and 3 minutes of interesting and occasionally intense drama, which intensity, apparently, warranted giving it an R rating, as there is little overt sex or violence in this movie to be viewed.

This is however entirely an adult movie in the proper sense of the term, though it involves a tale which begins with teens and young adults. Another warning as well. If you are not fond of British period pieces that turn into morality plays of sorts (this one set in 1935-40), you will probably not like this one much either. Having said all that, there is a good reason why critics have been raving about this movie and given it more Golden Globe nominations that any other film-- the acting is superb, the plot interesting, the cinematography excellent, the score moving, and it deals with a very substantive matter, indeed a matter of Biblical proportions-- atonement. This movie is at the other end of the spectrum from what one might call 'fluff' or 'mere entertainment'.

The basic story in the movie is simple enough, and on one level it is a traditional tale revealing the uglier side of class prejudices exhibited by the upper class towards their supposed cultural inferiors. Cecelia and Briony Tallis are 'to the manor born' and live in a palatial estate in the beautiful English countryside. Safely ensconced there as well is a bright young lad named Robbie, the housekeeper's son who carries a torch for Cecilia, all under the all too watchful eye of the younger sister, Briony.

Keira Knightley plays Cecilia and James McEvoy is Robbie Turner, and they very admirably show us the tensions of young love of a 'forbidden' sort in that sort of English society setting. Briony, played very well by newcomer Saoirse Ronan, unfortunately also has a longing for Robbie, and therein the plot thickens, or in this case sickens, as a young girl with an overly active imagination (she is already writing plays by the time she reaches puberty) becomes jealous of what her sister has, and when given the opportunity, when she thinks she sees Robbie doing something hideous, she seeks to ruin their relationship-- indeed she gives evidence to the authorities, about a rape of a relative, definitively and successfully accusing Robbie for a crime he did not commit. This leads to his jailing and then his being sent off to fight the Nazis at the beginning of WWII. The story only really deals with the period 1935-40, and thus only up to Dunkirk and it's immediate sequel. I shall not spoil the plot, and its rather surprising ending, but suffice it to say the story telling keeps your interest throughout.

All of this which I have just mentioned is actually just prologue to the real theme of the film, namely atonement. Can human beings make amends for this sins? Should they try? Is remorse the same thing as repentance? Apparently not!

This is not the usual fare served up in films these days, and indeed the filmmaker leaves clues all along the way that this film has a Biblical theme. The film begins in Briony's room with a full set of Noah's ark on the floor (the animals set up leaving the ark-- recovering normal life after the judgment upon the world). We have an apocalyptic scene at Dunkirk beach with a soldier choir sinking the hymn about 'the still small voice' which is haunting in many ways. We have a scene straight out of Macbeth with Briony, now as a nurse during the war trying endlessly to do the Pontius Pilate thing-- wash her hands of the whole affair, like Lady MacBeth trying to rid herself of the mental evidence of her crime.

It is possible to conclude that there is both remorse, and eventual repentance on the part of Briony, and an attempt, in the end, to atone for the horrible betrayal and injustice she committed at 13. She becomes a nurse in order to 'do some good', and there are later acts of attrition as well. But alas, it is all for naught. In the end there is no real atonement, and no forgiveness either.

In a striking remark at the end of the film Briony even rationalizes that there is sometimes no point in brutal honesty-- it's better to sugar coat things, apparently. The film offers no redemption of any sort, for anyone. In this respect, this is a truly post-modern film which eschews happy or Biblical endings, all the while using Biblical ideas and imagery to lay out a clear picture of human sin, guilt, and the attempt to get beyond them both. And of course, it is at the end of the day, a Biblical message to suggest that humans can't atone for their own sins, however badly they would like to do so, or feel they must. Only the Atoner can accomplish that.

I do highly recommend this movie. It's like drinking strong coffee, even when you don't need sobering up about the world's realities. I wish some of the characters in the film were a bit more likeable, but then, they are 'true to life'. If you ever need the nonsense about all human beings being basically good knocked out of your noggin , or the nonsense that everything will turn out alright in the end if you try hard enough to atone, whether or not one repents of one's sins and seeks God's help, then this is the movie for you. It reminds me of those famous words of John Greenleaf Whittier--- "For all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest are these, 'It might have been'."


pastorlee said...

Mr. Witherington,
My name is Lee Witherington. I am the pastor at Sycamore UMC as well as Marvin Chapel UMC. I would like to start a correspondence with you if posible. I am new to the ministry (second year) and your work has been a inspiration to me. Imagine my suprise to learn of another Witherington in the ministry that has acomplished so much. It was a little wierd to see my last name when I read Lee Strobels book "A case for Christ", but I thought it would be neat to try to contact you.

Hope to hear from you soon,
Lee Witherington

preacherman said...

I want to thank you for recommending this movie. I am looking for such a move as this brother.

On another note, I pray that God will bless you and your family this year in ways that you have never imagined.

Again, thank you so much for this recommendation.

Meddling Methodist said...


I just saw the movie last night and (among other wonderful elements) was struck by the use of windows and mirrors as reference points for the characters own misunderstanding of reality, as if in reference to 1 Cor 13:12. Briony especially continues to misinterpret reality, even in the end. Very powerful stuff.

Jeff P.

Ben Witherington said...

Yes I think this movie will become something of a classic, and will play very well in a post-modern world that already believes that we are all active readers of our worlds, busily reconstructing the world in our own imagination and image.


Shane said...

Hi Ben-
Thanks for the heads up! By the way, do you know if your commentary on 1 and 2 Peter is still on schedule for publication at the end of the month?

Ben Witherington said...

1 and 2 Peter should be out soon...


preacherman said...

Is it as good as Amazing Grace? or Facing the Giants?

Michael Gilley said...

This was a very powerful movie for me. As one who is not particularly fond of happily-ever-endings in reality based films this was quite pleasing and yet the film wasn't so overly-realistic that it left you anxiously sick through to the end. I actually wanted to see it again to get more unlike other volumes like Schindler's List or Children of Men. Instead, the entire thing was done quite beautifully and from a haunting perspective that is made clear in the end as you said. I never noticed the window metaphors before although now I will have to watch the film yet again to catch up on that. However, simply taken from my recollection, which might be wrong, could it have been that windows were representative of distortion and mirrors were of seeing clearly, as she did in the end? Either way, this is most noticeably postmodern in that it does offer no redemption for the deconstructed human soul into elaborate messy balls of emotion and confusion.

Ben Witherington said...

Facing the Giants is not even in the same ballpark as this movie. Amazing Grace is a fine film, but not as creative and intricate as this movie. This is a movie that forces you to rethink your categories, not merely make you cheery when something morally repugnant is finally voted down.

Payton said...

Mr. Witherington,
I have read many of your movie reviews and was wondering if you had heard of a movie called "Zeitgeist".

It is very... interesting...

It's basically a conspiracy theory in video form. the basic idea is that religion, 9/11, and the national banks are all part of a plan of world domination.


I found the religion portion about 2 parts humorous and 1 part insulting. Not because of the religious ideas, but because it was presented in a way that assumed I wouldn't do the research to verify it. Because I'm a sheep under the man's power, for sure.

Also, do you have a facebook or xanga or anything else like that, or is it just blog spot?

Ben Witherington said...

I reviewed the Zeitgeist movie about a month ago. Check last month's posts.


James Garth said...

Hi Ben,

I agree, this is a powerful movie, although my wife and I left the cinema feeling rather depressed. I wasn't surprised to learn that Ian McEwan, the original book's author, was an atheist, as I felt God's absence in the whole sprawling tale stood out like a large, sad hole.

I'm still coming to terms with the ending... I felt a little cheated by it, kind of like reading a book whose last page reads "and she woke up, and it was all a dream!"

But I think you're right in saying that this will become a postmodern classic. The story itself is ripe for analysis, and I can see that it could rank alongside Camus' works as a commentary on the human condition and the absurdity of life without God.


Kamal Weerakoon said...

Hi Dr Witherington. Thanks for an interesting, thoughtful and useful blog. Keep up the good work! Many blessings for 2008.

Paul said...

I would agree that the ending was a little surprising and M. Night Shyamalan-ish, which some folks love but I'm kinda getting tired of. One thing that bugged me was the actors talking too fast. Kiera Knightley needs to learn to slow down!

By the way, I'll eagerly await your review of "There Will Be Blood", which everyone says is a capital C "CLASSIC" and even better displayer of the human condition.


fröken lila said...

Thanx for all those reviews! I love going to the movies, and your thoughts always add some interesting perspectives to think about when coming home from the pictures.