' ' Cinema Romantico: Atonement

Saturday, December 08, 2007


A few weeks ago I had a semi-argument with friends regarding the presence of DVD players in automobiles. I declared if I were ever to have kids my car would not possess a DVD player. Why? This can only hamper a child's imagination. If a child is assaulted with electronics at every turn, including the car, how can they ever find time to imagine?

Now you could watch "Atonement" and say a child's imagination is as susceptible to bad as to good. I, however, having watched "Atonement", will say it is one of the most powerful, persuasive arguments for the power of the imagination - good or bad - I've ever seen. In one felled swoop the imagination can change lives, but it can also atone for sins of the past. "Atonement" - adapted from a novel by Ian McEwan of the same name - is not just one of the best films of the year. It is one of the best films of the decade. A towering achievement. A flat-out masterpiece.

The film opens on a luxurious English estate on the eve of WWII. Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley) is the daughter of a rich Englishman who has assisted in putting one of their servants Robbie (James Mcevoy) through Oxford. They harbor a passion for one another and this will come to a front in the richly beautiful passage that opens the movie. But there is also Cecilia's younger sister Briony (played by three actresses - Sairose Ronan, Romola Garai, Vanessa Redgrave - as the movie spans several decades), who will become the film's key player. She is - as Cecilia puts it - "fanciful". The first time we see her she has, despite her age, just completed her first play.

There is an encounter at a fountain between Cecilia and Robbie, seen first from Briony's point-of-view and then from the point-of-view of the two involved. In truth, it is a romantic episode between people that probably love each other. Briony, however, in the throes of her own crush on Robbie, sees it differently. A rape happens to another houseguest. Briony gives a version of the event contrary to what actually happened and events spiral out of control.

Robbie is taken away by the police and given the choice of jail or enlisting in the army. He enlists. We catch up with him later during the war, separated from his group during a "strategic withdrawal". Cecilia meanwhile has become a nurse, and the older version of Briony has done the same - perhaps to atone for her sin.

This is our set-up and I will give no more specifics of the plot, except to say it only gets deeper and richer, entering into that realm of human mystery where only a few films ever traverse. It is most fascinating to watch how the episodes of WWII work to symbolize what has already happened, deepening the plight of each character. Everything here is wrapped up together, barreling toward a conclusion that seems inevitable, except it's not.

Mention also must be made of a tracking shot that follows Robbie and two fellow English soldiers. It is among the great technical achievements in filmmaking history. The reason for its greatness? It's thematic. The entire film works as a war between reality and imagination and here we find one person realizing the true toll of war all at once and so we experience it as he does - with nowhere to hide, it just keeps coming. It's reality contrasted against the imagination. It's hypnotic. I confess to missing what happened in the following scene because I was still trying to recover.

But back to that conclusion. It left me in literal tears. An eloquent, powerhouse summing-up of the argument I made in the opening paragraph. The imagination, whether for good or for bad, is our most powerful tool. No film made has said it better.

This is a weekend in which I planned to see "The Golden Compass". But my office is moving and my last day at the old building was Friday, which meant it was the last day I could indulge in one of my favorite Chicago activities - hiking down Michigan Avenue on a Friday after work to catch the 5:30 show of a movie the night it opens at the AMC 21. "The Golden Compass" did not have a 5:30 show. "Atonement" did. That's why I went.

I hope and pray before every movie I see that it will leave the screen behind to step down to where I'm sitting and punch me in the gut and speak to my soul. Unfortunately, my prayers often tend to go unanswered. But last night they did not. "Atonement" left the screen. It punched me in the gut. It spoke to my soul. This is the movie of the year.

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