' ' Cinema Romantico: Atonement: Why I Love Movies

Friday, December 07, 2012

Atonement: Why I Love Movies

Jessica, proprietor of the blogging brilliance that is Velvet Café, just recently unleashed a mild-to-moderate storm, it seems, when she posed a simple question via the Twitter-sphere. She Tweets: “I can’t wrap my head around why film fans these days seem to be disappointed about every film they see. Do you even like films anymore?”

You can read her post addressing the topic further here, a post that elicited a great many comments - and I left her a comment in which I, more or less, assumed her side, even though I do completely understand the need for film criticism in the purest sense of the word. The timing of this whole debate intrigued me, though, because today marks the 5th anniversary of the day I walked into a showing of “Atonement” – a film I had not necessarily planned on seeing – and left two hours later moved to the very depth of my being.

I don’t want to use this space to add on to what Jessica said but just to say simply, as I’ve said so many times before, “Atonement” is why I love the movies. “Atonement” is why I go to the movies. “Atonement” is why I write about movies. And that is why today, if you will indulge me, I’d like to re-offer the review I wrote five years ago still burning in the afterglow of that unforgettable experience. Here's looking at you, Cecilia & Robbie.


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.


Unknown said...

Such a good post. I agree with you; this movie is one of the most emotionally stunning movies in awhile. And yes, children's imaginations should and need to be fostered no matter what...

Andrew K. said...

I remember watching this episode of "Unscripted" where James and Keira were on and they were saying how originally Joe Wright had wanted Robbie and Cee to turn benignly to the camera and smile at the end, as if to suggest that they had "forgiven" Briony.

And they both (Keira) were against the idea, and Keira mad ea very lovely point. She said that as a creator (writer/director) Wright was able to identify with Briony because of the way that he - like Briony - depended so much on imagination. That was one of the ways the relative (ostensible) simplicity of Atonement was revealed to be so much more.

ANYHOW, you know I'm down for any showing of Atonement love, so cheers.

Alex Withrow said...

Holy hell man, what a marvelous post. I love when a persons obvious passion for a film is articulated so clearly. I feel like all of us movie nuts have films that do for us what Atonement does for you, but damn if I've read a post that was communicated as passionately as yours.

Bravo, my friend.

Nick Prigge said...

Shala: Thank you. Thanks for reading. I fear for our future films if children's imaginations are not fostered properly.

Andrew: Wow. That is a crazy story. I can't believe that almost happened and I thank James and Keira for fighting against it. I don't know, that might have warped my feelings.

Alex: Dude, thank you. One of the nicest comments I've ever received. I'm a passionate person who wears his emotions on his sleeve so I try to make it a goal to have that blossom in what I write. Glad it connected.

Anonymous said...

"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."

I love this so much. Movies that punch you in your gut and speak to your soul are really something special. I must admit that I ahven't sen Atonement. But after reading your post I realize that I really have to.

Nick Prigge said...

Thank you, Jessica. Do check it out if you ever get a chance. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness! You made me want to watch this film all over again Nick. I fell in love with it the first time I watched it and you pointed out some of the reasons why. I've always got a thing for unrequited love but this story goes even deeper than that. It's the kind of love story that really rips your guts out. Bravo for writing this!

Nick Prigge said...

Thanks, Ruth! "Rips your guts out" is right. That's exactly what this movie does to me every time.