Dir. Joe Wright. Starring James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Saiorse Ronan
In the past twenty years, I think moviegoers’ penchant for a twist ending has become stronger. People have always loved having that “Whoa!” moment at the end of a film – Vertigo and Psycho both indulge here – but since The Usual Suspects I think our appetites have been whetted for the “Whoa!” It is my least favorite type of movie. The Usual Suspects, Inception, Shutter Island, The Sixth Sense, The Prestige, Fight Club – these movies rattle for two hours and more on to their twists, and at the end, the story never mattered because the twist was what the movie was about. It’s not character-based, which is a higher form of screenwriting, nor is it plot-based, which is a middling form but sometimes interesting. It’s twist-based, which is a waste of time. Did it really matter that Verbal Kint was Keyser Soze? Did it matter that we don’t actually know if Cobb’s totem stopped spinning? Did it matter very much that Andrew Laeddis and Teddy Daniels are the same man, or that we don’t know if he slips into madness or accepts a lobotomy? I fail to understand who would want to write a novel revolving around a twist, much less make a movie about a twist. Which artist makes a painting and says, “I hope people obsess over one corner of the canvas and never pay any mind to the rest of it”? Who is the composer who writes a symphony and says, “I hope people only care about ten measures of this piece and ignored the full three movements”?
All this goes to say that the twist at the end of Atonement is maybe the best possible ending to the story. (See what I did here? It was a twist. Gosh, y’all, life imitates art!)
Atonement is the story of a becoming writer. Briony Tallis (Ronan) is like Don Quixote; too much reading made her crazy. It is her goal to receive plaudits, fame, renown, from her stories. And it is her goal, also, to control through the stories she tells. Briony is the avatar of auteurism, who believes, as most pre-Barthes folk do, that the author is very much alive and well. What does not adhere to her story must be made to do so.
Briony, smarting because she has lost control of the original play she wrote to her older, more urbane cousin, Lola (Juno Temple), sees some action out her window. Her older sister, Cecilia (Knightley) is having some conflict with Robbie Turner (McAvoy) in front of a fountain outside. Robbie is the gardener’s son, who became something of an adopted member of the family. Robbie points at her. He shouts. She takes off her dress. She walks past him, jumps in the fountain, comes up, takes a vase out of his hand, and storms away. Briony is entranced.
Later that day, Robbie gives her a note for Cecilia. It uses a four-letter word that Briony has never seen before. It convinces her that Robbie is a pervert, and a dangerous one at that.
Briony sees that Lola has bruises on her arm. Lola blames her twin brothers.
Briony walks into the library. Her sister is up against the bookcase, her beautiful green gown slung across her legs. Robbie is facing her. Briony’s suspicions about Robbie are confirmed.
The twins go missing. Briony, while she’s out looking, sees that Lola has been raped. Briony doesn’t get a good look at the man. Lola doesn’t seem intent on telling anyone who it was. Robbie is missing for hours, but shows up with the twins. The police are investigating Lola’s case. Briony accuses Robbie. She is certain it was him, though she doesn’t know it was him. Robbie goes to jail.
The film actively works to subvert a single understanding of the narrative. Briony’s focus is singular, unwilling to consider other possibilities. The film lets us appreciate all sides by approaching each character. We come to understand, that Cecilia and Robbie are fighting off a fiery attraction for each other. That Robbie, trying to apologize for accidentally breaking a valuable vase, cannot come up with the right words. He cannot explain how he feels until he explains, precisely, what he thinks about her. That the wrong note ends up in the envelope. That a visitor, Paul Marshall (Bandersnatch Cummerbund), expresses a frightening interest in Lola. That Cecilia and and Robbie mutually succumb to one another.
In film, the camera is most often a third-person narrator. Not frequently does a first-person approach enter film, and even more infrequently does the first-person narrator switch visibly. In Atonement, this occurs, and it works nearly to perfection. Robbie is our first-person narrator. He and Cee relentlessly go at each other, removing as much of their formal wear as they dare to. Then Cecilia whispers something. And our focus turns to Briony, who in that moment, is the picture of horror, and our entire understanding of the situation slides away from Robbie and onto Briony. It’s a magnificent piece of camerawork.
The film depicts a future in which Robbie enters the army during World War II as a way to get out of prison. Wounded, he and a pair of men make their way to Dunkirk and are evacuated. Robbie comes home to Cecilia, who is living by herself, working as a nurse. As a kind of penance, Briony (played now by Romola Garai) passes up university to work as a nurse in another hospital. Robbie and Cecilia force Briony to recant her testimony about Robbie – which, of course, was never true and which Briony, pushing on the door of adulthood, recognizes to be untrue. Robbie and Cecilia buy a neat little house on the coast and live happily ever after in isolation.
This future, famously, is false. In an interview, an aged Briony (Vanessa Redgrave), creaking towards death via dementia, reveals that her final book in her long career as a novelist is about Cee and Robbie, to give them the life they never had. And that’s when the twist occurs, in the final moments of the film. Cecilia died in the Blitz, drowned in a subway station. Robbie died of an infection at Dunkirk. They never saw each other again after he was arrested.
Here’s the difference between The Prestige and Atonement. In The Prestige, the twist is there to amaze us, just as it was there to make us say, “Nuh uh!” in Fight Club, or to deprive us of closure in Inception. (A film! Without closure! Golly!) In Atonement, the twist knocks the wind out of the viewer. It physically attacks the person watching. But that’s not why it’s there. It’s there because it teaches us what we need to know about Briony.
Briony’s sense of real life, her affect, is as damaged as it ever was. Only now, Briony has learned something about decency, or politeness, but she has not learned that she cannot make up for what she has done wrong. In the end, by writing the story of her sister and her lover, she has taken the control of the story away from them again, just as she did decades before as a little girl. “Giving them happiness” requires her to dispense it to them, as if happiness were a gumball she could buy for them with a novel. “Giving them happiness” requires her to explain away the tragedy behind their story; there is no happiness in Robbie and Cecilia’s story: their story is regret and pain and hatred and austerity. Their story is the betrayal of one sister by another for the sake of a plot. Briony’s story is one of cowardly hubris – the woman who never recanted her testimony, the woman who tried to deflect the blame from herself by painting a pretty picture of domestic bliss after a trial. Without the twist, this movie becomes an hour’s affair, a short story. With the twist, the movie puts the viewer firmly in Robbie and Cecilia’s shoes. Not only is love taken away from them, but from us as well.