Tuesday, January 1, 2008
"The Clarity of Passion"
*contains many spoilers
In the first few minutes of the film, aspiring playwrite Broiny (Ronan) remarks to her older sister Cecilia (Knightley) that “in a book all you have to do is write the word ‘castle’ and you can imagine the steeple and walls…but in a play it’s difficult…it all depends on other people.” Indeed ATONEMENT proves how much of each persons life, each persons happiness, “depends on other people.” God help you if your architect is nearsighted. The fact that Broiny mentions this just before she next remarks of Cecelia's broken relation with Robbie (McAvoy); son of the groundskeeper and friend of the family, seals the two notions together and sets all the calamity in motion.
ATONEMENT, a suspenseful and incisive mood piece, a perfectly placed period drama that isn’t stifled by insularity, and a tale of hapless love torn asunder by lies, is more than the sum of its faculties because of the levity with which it navigates through them, and the broadness of its accessibility. Director Joe Wright, with reputedly faithful consideration to his source material, engages what might otherwise be a rather straightforward fatalistic unfolding of events and irrevocable consequences, with all the amenities that film allows. Sound, framing, montage, juxtapositions, and structure are all utilized to a rich and poetic extent, never wavering in, but perhaps flaunting, their functionality
The reason the film is so successful in dramaturgy, though it owes grand favor to all its aesthetics and impeccable composition, is because we are utterly and rather swiftly convinced of the gravity between Cecelia (Knightly) and Robbie (McAvoy), the very crux of the story itself. This is where Atonement succeeds over, say, Jeunet’s lush but grim A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT (2004), a film that bears certain emotional and circumstantial likeness. Jeunet’s film seems to have to tell us explicitly that the principle characters are “soulmates” rather than allow it to be implicitly and therefore more authentically understood. The subsequent convoluted yarn that unravels is just slightly less compelling without anchor and urgency, though still beautiful. Not only are we convinced of Celia and Robbie’s internalized penchant for one another, it is an understanding that is accomplished in mere glances and gestures, viewed if not obscured from a distance through a window; a quiet quarrel of expressions and mannerism speaks volumes. Beyond the brilliance of the two leads in ushering these simmering complex emotions, we have a telling structure of visual juxtapositions in montage, which reveal in the abstract, the very same connection; Cecelia diving into the water as Robbie surfaces in his bath, Cecelia wiping lipstick from her face to reveal a kind of physical honesty to herself in the mirror as Robbie attempts his own version of honesty in a letter meant for her with mirrors at his face level, both smoking and pondering their words, both (ironically at this moment of self-honesty) putting on costume and façade for the impending dinner later that evening. This contradictory moment is embodied in the nature of mirrors themselves (a substantial motif). Mirrors are a contradiction because they are both the truth and deception, a reflection is accurate but also inverse.
Color makes its own statements in ATONEMENT, but in small ways; not as vibrantly instructive as in a film like RAN (1985), or as strictly aesthetic as in a film like ROMEO + JULIET (1997). It exists in a middle ground. Broiny, blond-haired, blue-eyed, naïve little wordsmith, wears white as a child, but as a young adult coming to terms with her transgression by working as a nurse for the red cross, the purity of her white uniform is marred by the violence of a bright red cape (I mean bright), and the red “x” that its straps make across her chest (not unlike the small jagged war wound across Robbie’s own chest). The "x" carries the guilt across her heart of having spun the falsehood that tore the two new lovers apart, sending Robbie to jail and then war, and Celia to the exile of urban disillusionment. For the fateful dinner party Cecelia puts on a shimmering leaf-green dress, and because of the inter-splicing in this sequence we can’t help but notice the connective theme of green in Robbie’s house as he leaves for the same dinner, nor can we help but draw Cecelia’s colorful elemetal connection to Robbie’s practice as a gardener. The nuances in ATONEMENT abound so much so that from the very beginning we feel the bond between Cecelia and Robbie…the rest is aftermath. We follow in tow because we are given the legs to stand on. It is because of these nuances that when the two say “I love you” in the library, partly removing each others costume and breaking their silences, we believe it. It is also one of the most brilliant love scenes I’ve seen on film because of how much it communicates beyond mere sexuality. I’d compare it, only in recent cinema, to the gestural complexity of the first love scene in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005), which undulates its pitch masterfully.
Like in all truly great love stories, love is a palpable but distant ideal for Cecelia and Robbie, though within their grasp for but a moment. “We just travel in different circles,” Cecelia explains as pretext to her affections for him. CASABLANCA, the most romantic movie ever made as some say, has only two kisses in it, and Bogart doesn’t even get the girl in the end! What’s “romantic” is the yearning, the aching, the struggle for or towards love. These are the more tangible qualities of love (or at least the more cathartic), and ironically they are the greatest proof of the enduring and prolific stain that love can leave on us, even when distilled by tragedy, time, distance, war, class, etc. ATONEMENT is testament to the inevitability and boundlessness of attraction and love, as well as the inevitability of its forfeit and difficulty. Maybe Robbie and Cecelia would wind up hating each other, break up over some petty quarrel, but the tragedy lies in the ‘not knowing,’ the ‘never got the chance.’ This emotional thievery is what makes the very last scene such a contradiction to its nature. It’s blissful and pure on the surface, which belies the devastating truth that it is but an impossible and imagined joy, as Broiny (played in later life by Vanessa Redgrave) explains as author of her autobiographical final novel in tight inescapable close-ups. .
The most effective decision in ATONEMENT may be that it waits until its final breaths to rip the carpet from under the narrative and riddle the audience with a kind of half-doubt about everything they have just watched and been swept up in. It is the kind of film that demands by this twist, and its own infectious emotion, for the viewer to reconsider and reconstruct and to revisit. This decision is not arbitrary or manipulative because the entire narrative is spun by the 'imprecision of truth,' the shades of perspective and speculation, which bear grim consequence. It drives the point home completely, that we now question everything we just saw as Broiny had to do. ATONEMENT opens with the sound of a typewriter striking away, the title banged out stroke by stroke. We will come to recognize this sound not only as a structural marker, but also as a constant echo of fabrication, and as Broiny’s musical theme to a degree. From this moment we should have an inkling of how speculative many elements of the story are, especially because the first shot is of Broiny typing, but we don’t. She’s the architect of the whole story and the catalyst of its entire drama…but we don’t know as much as we think until the very end. We learn subliminally that truth follows her, but never walks with her, as told by a particularly excellent shot in the hospital. The camera tracks backward through a dim hallway in pace with Broiny who's walking toward us. As she takes her steps, the ceiling lights behind her turn on one by one...always following behind her, never the one above her.
The early rustlings of the narrative have much to say in their details about an impending discord, and none are better than the buzzing of the bee. Broiny looks to her window when she hears the buzzing of a frantic bee, clawing at the glass. This image already resonates as a note of violence when shown in close-up, and because of what Broiny sees unfolding outside at this very moment between Celia and Robbie, it speaks to the hazard of trying to understand things with an obscured perspective. It is through this window that Broiny makes her first grave misconception, just as the bee, not understanding that glass is clear but solid, writhes its body against it ceaselessly. For Cecelia, it is her proclivity towards water that foretells disharmony. It’s not so much that she’s drawn to water, but more like she can’t escape it. First she jumps into the fountain to retrieve the shard of broken vase, she dives into the pond to escape the raised issue of Robbie, and she sits on the shore of a violent sea to ponder her distant lover. These are all part of a foreshadowing because they all couple water with a negative ideal. Cecelia’s fate lies within her proclivity. Her demise is drowning in a tunnel during the bombing of London. Its one of the more haunting images in cinema history; her body trails away from us suspended in the dim water like a grim marionette, arms extended. The scene in which she retrieves the shard of vase is, in its own way, an impressionistic foretelling of her death. Her scuffle with Robbie at fountains edge fractures the vase. She goes in after to retrieve it, only to fix an image in our minds to be recalled when her fragile body is floating amongst the tunnel’s debris. One might also recall the scene in which Cecelia lays prostrate on the diving board above the pond, wearing the purest white bathing suit and cap. Her body hovers like a still spirit over the water while her reflection in the pond ripples with a quiet intensity; the reflection serving well enough as both her body trapped underwater, and the simmering of her hidden emotions. The great irony of her fate is that Robbie’s final experience on the beaches of Dunkirk is that of insatiable thirst. It’s befitting though, that they should both die underground in the dark, together at least in circumstance.