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'."