What is atonement and has this movie shown it?

by Mr. Sheehy

I am almost finished with our free Netflix trial, which was supposed to be a two-week trial but since I wasn’t thinking strategically when I started it, I only got a week and a half. The trial begins the moment you click okay on the contract screen, and I clicked okay during one of these late night computer sessions. That day that had only an hour and a half left in it then counted as day 1. I also made a double mistake because that day was a Thursday, which meant the shipping for my first batch of movies spanned the weekend and arrived Monday, losing me the first weekend of the trial. My advice, then, is that if you take the Netflix free trial, sign up early on a Monday morning.

Today’s installment was Atonement, which I was able to bear despite my disgust for Keira Knightly–a disgust that stems entirely from her growingly annoying character in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. That annoyance, by the way, reaches its peak in the third Pirates‘ movie with THE WORST climactic speech ever written for film. When my classes watch To Kill a Mockingbird I contrast Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch speech with Knightly’s just to dwell on my disdain.

Anyway, I am still working out my opinion about this Atonement thing. I was mostly engaged in the movie, so in that sense it was a winner, but, well, I don’t know. Admittedly I don’t buy that the character Briony’s actions atoned for what she did (I’m not going to summarize the plot at all. If you haven’t seen the movie, I apologize for this post making no sense), though her struggle for how to atone for her actions is obviously the key theme of the film. I sense that the filmmakers suggest the publication of her book about her sins achieves for her some level of atonement, because her coming disease and loss of memory appear to be a kind of reward–with it she will be released of the memory of what she did to her sister and Robbie.

Perhaps I read the ending wrong, but I do not catch anywhere in the film a belief in any divine or spiritual world beyond what is materially present. Without any further world, a full atonement is restricted to circumstances where all materials (re: people) are present for negotiation–circumstances Briony sets up in her novel version of the conflict between her, her sister, and Robbie.

In that sense, the angst of the movie is heightened, for the question is great and reads like one of those annoying philosophy 101 hypotheticals– “You have sinned greatly against two parties and those parties die before you can right your wrongs. How can you atone for what you have done?” That seems to be the question of the movie in a nutshell.

I diverge away from the conundrum, however, because I have not accepted the restricted terms of the world as strictly material, and because atonement seems more to be something that is received than achieved. For me, I am asking a different set of questions as I walk away from this movie, questions that arise from the sadness I feel that this might be many people’s complete perception of atonement and forgiveness. What do we think atonement is? From where do we think it comes? Against whom have we sinned? Ultimately? Whose law have we broken? Who has the power to forgive us?

I’m not sure Atonement raises these questions directly. It seems to be more concerned with the conundrum, but the strength of the film, in my mind, is that it has left enough open to converse. It may not raise the questions I ask, but I think it invites them.

This story for this film is much like a number of stories I have read and with which I get initially annoyed. I react against them right away but then as I explain what I don’t like, I open the box where the rich theme is stowed, and the ensuing process of thought and conversation reveals the strength of the narrative. It appears this is the case here. I wouldn’t have pulled for this movie to win the Oscar for best film, but I’d likely have given it credit for best screenplay.

And I certainly think I got my money’s worth.

Thanks for reading.