I say I’m not big on period piece films, but I’m not sure that’s accurate, as many of my favorite films fall into this category. But because I don’t think I like them, it’s often pulling teeth to get me to watch them. Case in point, Joe Wright’s Atonement; a friend of mine loaned me Juno (a marvelous film) and snuck in Atonement as a bonus, urging me to watch it, saying it was marvelous. As this friend also has a photo of James McAvoy on her desktop at work, I wasn’t sure if it was the quality of the film that she was gushing over or (the quite lovely) McAvoy. Turns out it must have been both; he was fantastic in this film.
But I get ahead of myself.
I’ve not read the novel by Ian McEwan, so I didn’t run into that problem that often arises when watching films based on books (usually marked by heavy disappointment and mild to marked resentment that so much was changed or left out or added in). No, I just sat down with my cup of tea and pizza and, as I watched the opening sequence, expected to be bored. But I wasn’t. The film pulled me into its exploration of stories and story telling, its play on perspective and point of view, and its interweaving of time and place. I was fascinated and appalled and happy and sad, and while the film does urge one to think, it doesn’t take itself too seriously (though the water imagery surrounding Cecilia is a bit heavy handed and the role of storyteller as God gets away from Wright on occasion).
The story teller of the film is Briony Tallis, and we first meet her as a child who is somewhat detached from reality and lives in her imagination. Bright, energetic, and creative, Briony writes plays and stories. Controlling, manipulative, and vengeful, Briony tells a lie that changes the course of her life, along with that of everyone she knows and loves. The lovers in the piece, Cecilia and Robby, are unfairly torn apart as a result, and Briony uses her storytelling ultimately to come to terms with and perhaps create a place of peace for herself. Powerful stuff.
The viewer is in a unique position of seeing the events through Briony’s eyes and through the eyes of Cecilia and Robby (as well as other scenes through a sort of third person omnipotence) and of being asked not to judge too harshly and instead to understand the motivations and characterization of each. That’s a lot to ask of an audience, and it can’t have been easy to manage filmically, but Wright somehow pulls it off. We despise the selfish machinations of a jealous (or perhaps protective?) sibling, while we’re caught up in some sense of sympathy (if not empathy) for her, her actions, and their horrific result.
The opening “act” takes place in a lovely English country manor, where the sun shines and the flowers bloom and all is rich and lush and grand. The undercurrents of classism that turn up on the screen are no doubt broader and deeper in the novel, but you see it clearly enough to understand its role in the events that take place. The next “act” is set in World War II London and France, and the audience is snapped from luxury and peace into grime and war in such a way that one can’t help but feel the full impact of the “fall” that has taken place. And finally, in the third “act” (I do think of this as a play for some reason), we are in the present day, on a television set, a sharp contrast to both previous acts and oddly, where the truth is finally, fully revealed.
One of the things that I’ve been musing about since watching the film is the idea of happy endings, how a part of us yearns for them even while we recognize that we’re being unduly romantic and unrealistic (she says pessimistically). Another thing that I’ve been thinking about is the arc of our lives, how we seem to gravitate back to our early ideas and beliefs as we get older, sometimes, it seems, coming full circle back to our earliest conceptions and belief systems, maybe with some adaptations and hopefully with some wisdom, but back nonetheless to our core selves . . . whatever or whomever they may be.