Friday, April 11, 2008

I'm Sorry

"You tell me mistakes / Are part of being young / But that don't right / The wrong that's been done"

Dusty was away in LA for a prototyping workshop all week, so on Tuesday night, I had a just-for-me movie night and rented Atonement. If you haven't seen the movie or read the book, there might be spoilers ahead.

The first quarter of the movie, the summer 1935 set piece, is gorgeous, sumptuous, and sultry. I could almost hear the dragonflies buzzing lazily in the garden. For once, Keira Knightley's inherent haughtiness is put to good use as the high-class Cecilia. She has an amazing on-screen chemistry with Scottish cutie James McAvoy, who plays Robbie with a barely-contained intensity. The scene in the library . . . oh, lawdy. It gave me the vapors!

Saoirse Ronan was excellent as 13-year-old Briony, her crystal blue eyes brimming with righteous indignation when she falsely accuses Robbie of the crime that sends him to jail. In fact, Briony's character was written and played so well by all the actresses portraying her [Romola Garai at 18 and Vanessa Redgrave at 77], that I had a really tough time feeling sympathy for her. Granted, there are so many layers to Ian McEwan's story and it will probably take a second viewing to absorb it all, much less understand or make peace with it. Then again, maybe the movie was meant to leave me feeling unsettled.

First of all, the movie is not a straight-up romance as the trailers would have you believe. After the first quarter, the movie becomes bleaker by the minute. Even the color scheme changes to match the mood. Second, this isn't so much Robbie and Cecilia's story as it is Briony's, but they are definitely intertwined. Briony spends the rest of her life trying to atone for what she had done to her sister and her sister's lover during the first quarter of the movie. She forgoes an education at Cambridge and works as a nurse during World War II, scrubbing floors and emptying bedpans as a sort of penance for her prideful sin.

So Robbie and Cecilia get one passionate tryst and a half hour at tea to declare their love for each other. Then they both die horribly in World War II before they reach their 30s, before they realize their full potential. Briony gets to live a long life, marry, have children, and publish 21 novels. Well, yes, but in her 70s we find out she is dying from a horrible disease that will eventually deny her the ability to speak and wipe out her memory. The language loss is a bummer, but how convenient that her memories of that awful time and of what she has endured because of it will be gone.

Briony's latest and last novel imagines a chance at happiness for Robbie and Cecilia, the chance that she took from them in real life. It doesn't make up for Robbie spending three years in jail and Cecilia spending the rest of her short life estranged from her family. It doesn't atone for the years of separation that Robbie and Cecilia go through during the war, with no reward for their faithfulness to each other. But Briony is ever so sorry. Really.

It's not that I insist on happy endings to love stories; Casablanca is my favorite movie of all time. That ending? Not so happy for the lovers. It was, however, more satisfying than the ending of Atonement. I came away from Casablanca feeling like Rick and Ilsa's separation was for a greater good. They were torn apart by forces bigger than themselves, and they were willing to make the sacrifice to remain apart if it meant that Victor could make the world better with Ilsa by his side. Briony is a force of nature, to be sure, but Robbie and Cecilia's separation did nobody any good. I came away from Atonement feeling like Robbie and Cecilia died in vain and Briony got off relatively scot-free.

"But she lived with guilt and remorse and regret ALL HER LIFE, Cookie!" Well, then she'd make a fabulous Catholic. It still doesn't make me feel sympathetic towards her. "But she's dying of a horrible disease!" She's 77 years old! She had a good run! Call me masochistic, but I wanted her punishment to be more severe, like maybe she never found love and lived as a secluded spinster. Or she never publishes a thing and her family loses all their money. SOMETHING that would make her suffer more than guilt and remorse and regret.

I know that life works this way, that horrendous things happen to fairly good people, that sins go unpunished, but I don't necessarily watch movies to experience life. Atonement is still worth a viewing, for the powerful performances and gorgeous photography. Just keep in mind that you may walk away from the ending going, "Oh, sister. Sorry don't right the wrong that's been done here."

"I'm Sorry" by Brenda Lee
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