Christopher Hampton, Ian McEwan, and Joe Wright, 2007
Briony, a pubescent girl in 1935, has a crush on a strapping young lad
named Robbie, the son of one of the servants on her English country
estate. He, however, is infatuated with Briony's older sister, and
she with him. When Briony catches the two of them having sex, she
is so devastated and confused that, later, when her cousin is raped,
Briony names Robbie as the perpetrator and he is jailed. Years pass.
How can Briony make up for what she's done?
Apparently this is an Oscar frontrunner, which surprised me since
it's really quite bad. Spoilers ahoy.
I was taken to see this as a homework assignment, so I went in knowing
next to nothing about it. After seeing it, I saw a billboard for it
that makes it look like a romance story between Robbie and Briony's
sister. Briony isn't even on the billboard. I guess this is because
Saoirse Ronan isn't a celebrity and because the romance novel aspect
struck the studio as more marketable than the theme suggested by the
title. Anyway, the romance is totally uninteresting and every moment
spent away from Briony is basically wasted.
The beginning of the movie is poor. For the first half hour or so
there is no reason to watch it. We are introduced to many characters,
but there is no information we want to learn about them until there is
a mixup between a couple of letters and the plot gets underway. Then
things cook along for a bit until an incorrectly time-stamped jump
forward to World War II, during which we watch Robbie succumb to blood
poisoning, though it actually looks like he's just kind of scruffy and
tired. The film does pick back up when it returns to Briony. But then
comes the ending.
In comics (and probably other media) there is an acronym called EYKIW
— Everything You Know Is Wrong — that gets applied to
plot arcs that exist in order to overturn what readers have assumed,
and sometimes been told, about the past. You thought the Vision
was built out of the Human Torch... but EYKIW! The Human Torch is back!
You thought Jean Grey was dead... but EYKIW! She's actually in
a pod at the bottom of Jamaica Bay! Atonement tries something
like this, but the difference is that in the comics examples, readers
have had years to get invested in their understanding of events. A lot
of movies these days try to do this sort of thing, with twist endings
that recode all that has gone before — Keyser Soze was a SLED!
— but Atonement doesn't do that. It doesn't say everything
you know is wrong; it says that everything you've learned in the last
ten minutes, and which you haven't yet had time to process, is wrong.
So? It's like "Red yellow blue green purple— ha ha! Fooled you!
It's actually red yellow blue green ORANGE!" I don't care.
The one thing I did find interesting about Atonement was the
question it raised about Briony's culpability. Again: you've got a
13-year-old girl who sends a man to prison out of childish pique that
her puppy love for him is unrequited. From prison he goes straight to
Europe to fight in the war, and dies there. Briony can therefore never
make up for her crime. What struck me about this scenario as it played
out was that what Briony does is monstrous... and yet I couldn't blame
her for it. She's a child. Do you blame a five-year-old who
plays with matches and burns his house down? Even when we're talking
about deliberate crimes, there's a reason we have a separate justice
system for juveniles. Maybe it's because she was the first character
to appear in the movie, or maybe it's because I will always give the
benefit of the doubt to smart serious girls, but she's a 13-year-old
with a crush, and from what I remember of what crushes felt like at
13, that's your NGRI right there. And yet, how can you just wave away
such immense destruction? It is a conundrum.
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