There is a scene about two thirds into Atonement that ranks as one of the most spectacular and awesome feats that cinema has ever offered. It is a vision of the nearly vanquished British army, now stuck on a French beach, having retreated all the way to the sea and awaiting its encroaching doom in the early days of World War II. The Brits have found a deserted carnival on the beach and—since they have nothing else to do while they wait to die—several of them have begun to play on it. This scene is revealed in a single brilliant tracking shot that weaves between the soldiers rushing into formation and those cooking under parasols before passing by a man who methodically shoots his horses. The camera then turns and encircles a group of forlorn men who stare out to sea while singing a melancholic dirge, it follows the path of a merry-go-round crowded with boisterous, drunken soldiers, and, finally, pulls back to reveal a Ferris wheel in the background framed against a beautiful setting sun and a smoke-filled sky. At one point we see a single soldier grab on to one of the Ferris wheel’s carriages. As the carriage rises he dangles by just one arm; we keep expecting him to fall off, but as the carriage reaches its apex and begins its descent he remains, still clinging. For some reason this struck me as a microcosm of the whole, a scene as beautiful as it is hellish, a beautifully choreographed and perfectly captured nightmare.
While the Dunkirk scene is astonishingly breathtaking it is hardly novel. Since at least the days of Catch-22 authors have mixed the horrors of war with chaotic surrealism to produce this sort of hauntingly beautiful effect. It is a trick that has been pulled quite a few times. Nor is it anything new to film, as Spielberg created something very similar (also set on a beach in France) just after the first battle in Saving Private Ryan. Nor is this even the first time we’ve seen something like this in a recent film, as the horrendously scripted Children of Men secured itself a spot as a decent film by using a couple of inspired single take tracking shots through wartime action. But what Atonement loses in originality it makes up for in professionalism. And up until this scene—which is the film’s high point—that is exactly what Atonement is: a good solid professional film. Not the year’s best, nothing groundbreaking, not the work of a true master, but a very well-executed movie sure to pick up a couple of Oscars.
Unfortunately the film then proceeds to falter (although its Oscar chances are still alive and well). It moves its scope, as it inevitably must, away from the compelling narrative of a soldier and his love to the titular act.
While the crime which requires atonement—the very skillfully set-up subject of the film’s first act—is a veritable joy to watch, the act of atonement that follows it is very weak by comparison. Surely the act of atonement is one of the deepest and most complex facets of our humanity, consequently providing practically limitless philosophical potential, and, when this act is engaged correctly, it produces the unequaled best in our literature. Consider Crime and Punishment and The Stranger for example. It is, however, very difficult to do well and this particular go-round seems satisfied merely to acknowledge that the act exists, without making any profound comments about it.
This is of course fine by me, and if the film had ended with the story of how Briony Tallis, the character indirectly responsible for the above-mentioned soldier-in-love’s fate as a soldier, atoned, then it would be a very strong movie, stopping just short of brilliant. The trouble is the film decides that it wants to make a deep comment about atonement after all, without having a clue as to what real atonement is or what it really wants to say about it.
Right before we reach what would under normal circumstances be the film’s climax, we are snapped out of the story and placed on the set of a television show in the present day. Briony Tallis is being interviewed about her new book, Atonement, and she reveals to the interviewer that some of the events depicted in her book (those we have just finished watching) did not actually occur. No doubt the makers of the film congratulate themselves for their betrayal of narrative expectation. No doubt this works in the novel. But it fails miserably here. The reason is simple: the expected outcome of a narrative serves a purpose, it satisfies the audience. It is a gift that should only be forfeited if something greater is to be gained in its stead. Betraying our narrative expectations in No Country for Old Men succeeded because that film is concerned with free will, fate, and determinism. By challenging what they bring you to expect, the Coen brothers are able to deepen their film’s philosophy by adding to it a few layers. This is far from the case with Atonement, a film that eschews the satisfaction that comes with a completed story in order to make a sloppy, semi-incoherent point about atonement. And in doing so it breaks one of narrative’s golden rules, in a meek attempt to justify itself: show don’t tell! You have to be an absolute master with a deep understanding of why these rules are in place before you can hope to disregard them. And for all of their professionalism, the makers of Atonement are not even close to being masters.
I have purposefully omitted the plot of Atonement because watching it unfold was one of the greatest pleasures last year’s cinema had to offer. Although it is mostly unoriginal and somewhat predictable, it is so well paced and so craftily revealed that you won’t care at all. The first two-thirds of this movie prove that it’s the singer that matters and not the tune. Unfortunately the film’s end, which resembles the kind of arrhythmic and cacophonous free jazz of a cat crossing a piano, reminds us that once you start a tune, it's important to keep singing.