On Atonement

Watched this last weekend, and I have to say I enjoyed it. “Have to say”, because there are some serious problems here. I’ll mention these first so as to end on an upbeat note.

The biggest problem is the shlock factor. I found this to be definitely true in the movie, although I have suspicions about the novel by Ian McEwan, as I have suspicions about some of his other novels as well. A harsh judgment, maybe, but I find evidence in the following scenes:

(1) After their brief reunion during the war, Cecilia leaves by boarding a bus. Robbie watches her leave, it’s a poignant moment that’s been played out countless times in life and art, especially the movies. As I was watching, I thought, well, okay, this is quite sad. Then I saw Robbie thinking. No, not thinking, but hesitating. Hesitating? Well, pausing, at least. Pausing before what? Surely he won’t run after the bus – more accurately, surely he won’t be scripted or directed to run after the bus. Then … off he goes! The bus pulls away, slowly at first, then more quickly. Cecilia is appropriately whistful and winsome. Robbie is appropriately desperate. They are both appropriately heartbroken. Then I think, I say to myself, “Don’t be an asshole. This happens all the time in real life. It’s happening somwhere right now. What would you do if Keira Knightly was getting on a bus after a brief meeting over tea? You’d run after that face as well, wouldn’t you? ” Well, yes, I probably would. “So why shouldn’t it be dramatized? What more does the cinematic art need to offer us than said depiction of sad reality.” Well, rather more, I think, as a Brit might say. Rather more.

(2) When Cecilia and Robbie first make it, they make it in the library. Nothing wrong with that. Works great in a book, actually, and just about as well in a movie. But they’re standing up. Nothing really wrong with that, I guess. Lots of standup people make it standing up, and maybe in a library as well. But not like these two are standing up, not with Keira’s arm’s spread out, crucified against a wall of books – nailed, really, by Robbie, who turns sheepish and proper when their passion is discovered. Stiff upper and all that. Keira’s pose reemphasized at the end, but I won’t give that away here. It’s worth looking for.

(3) Is a writer Marxist just because he appeals to Marxist sentiments? Certainly not. That would be entirely unfair. And yet …

All in all, not so bad, although it certainly got a rise out of me in the viewing of it all. Not enough to negate many of the enjoyable aspects of the movie.

(1) The most sumptuous cinematography I have seen since the Aviator. The aforementioned scene in the street, with the bus, is absolutely stunning. The Transporter Effect, by which I mean the extent to which one feels removed to the time and place portrayed on the screen, is as great here as I’ve ever felt it. It’s the closest you’ll ever get to a time machine. This over-the-top cinematography is on display throughout – English gardens, elegant dinners, war. This is also amplified by a numer of extremely well executed tracking shots, some of them quite long.

(2) I mentioned the fairly grating visual of the end as it concerns Keira’s character. The end as it concerns Robbie is something else entirely. Very, very well thought out; the richest part of the story, perhaps, even if … no, I won’t say it. It’s well done.

(3) The metafictional aspect of the story (young Briony, Cecilia’s sister, is a writer) is worked out masterfully. The semblance of one actress to the other and to the other is very, very well done. The arc of the story is entirely believable (despite the trouble I had with some of those individual scenes).

Let me say again, the cinematograhpy is stupendous. Whatever you do, don’t watch it on video if you can see it in a theatre. Like The Aviator it’s one of those movies that really demands to be seen on the big screen; you really won’t believe your eyes. Most of the time it’s for the right reason.


  1. Quin Finnegan says

    Regarding the s.f., what are we to make of lines such as these?

    Dearest Cecilia, the story can resume. The one I had been planning on that evening walk. I can become again the man who once crossed the surrey park at dusk, in my best suit, swaggering on the promise of life. The man who, with the clarity of passion, made love to you in the library. The story can resume. I will return. Find you, love you, marry you and live without shame.

  2. Like you said, great cinematography. Truly a feel-bad movie of the year but worth seeing.

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