Atonement: Invisible Characters and Narration by Stealth

March 12, 2008 at 3:51 pm Leave a comment

The SOUND of a typewriter, irregularly struck, now fluent, now creating an urgent rhythm that forms the percussive element of the opening score.

This is how Atonement begins. The viewer is thrust into a childs room. The typewriter is being worked upon by a girl, a child. She finishes her typing with a dramatic “THE END” and tears off the sheet. She marches down the house to her mother’s chamber. A marching tune plays in the background, the rhythmic sound of a typewriter.

A few minutes into the film, Briony is shocked after watching the actions of the other two principal character; Cecilia and Robbie, who stand by a fountain in the grounds beneath. She watches from afar, as Robbie appears to instruct Cecilia, who takes off her clothing and dives into the pond, emerging soaked and angry. Whatever conclusion Briony draws are not revealed but she is clearly taken aback. Immediately after this the film cuts to Cecilia running through the woods with a bouquet of flowers clutched in her hand. In a well paced sequence, Cecilia meets up with Robbie, and the two walk up to the fountain. Then the viewer is made to witness the ‘actual’ turn of events that took place.

This ploy is repeated a few minutes later. Robbie sits at his desk writing an apology to Cecilia. In a moment of passion, he types an obscene letter before penning down a proper apology. He later gives it to Briony who immediately scampers away. As Robbie watches her disappear, it is revealed in a flashback that he took the wrong letter. As he realises his mistake he calls out after Briony, but she is already running away, the furious click clack of the typewriter in the background.

These are two of several such sequences in Atonement. The viewer is first shown the characters actions, usually as seen by Briony. Then, immediately, the film cuts back in time to reveal the motifs or circumstances which lead the characters to undertake these actions. Now, Atonement is no Memento or Reservoir Dogs. It’s a simple story of two lovers separated by circumstances and war. Of what use is this non linearity, I kept asking myself, till the film ended with a very cruel twist. Once you get over the shock, you realize that the cut backs are not just a stylish device, they hold the key to understanding the film.

========SPOILERS ALERT========
To summarise the film, after reading the letter Briony concludes that Robbie is a “sex maniac”. Robbie is later accused of rape and briony testifies as a witness, and when the incriminating letter is brought forward he is sent to jail. The story jumps a few years forward, into World War II. The fates of the characters are revealed. Robbie and Cecilia, both involved in the war effort, want to unite but they are separated by the war. Briony, now an adult, tries to trace her sister and once she finds her and Robbie, she apologizes.

Nothing spectacular, is there? Not till this point, no. After leaving Robbie and Cecilia together, we see Briony sitting inside a train/tram, with a very morose expression on her face. The screen suddenly blacks out. Then you hear this strangely distorted voice of a woman,
“I am sorry, can we stop for a moment here”.
Two dozen color TVs fill the screen. On each screen you see the same old woman, Older Briony. The tape rewinds to the start of an interview that she is giving. Briony, now aged and dying, is talking about her latest book, Atonement. She reveals that Robbie and Cecilia never really got together as they died in separate incidents. The words have been used economically, but each one hits you like a brick. To quote the last lines of the film:

So my sister and Robbie never had the
time together they both so longed for
and deserved, which, ever since,
I’ve…always felt I prevented. But
what sense of hope or satisfaction
could a reader derive from an ending
like that? So, in the book, I wanted
to give Robbie and Cecilia what they
lost out on in life. I’d like to think
this wasn’t weakness or evasion, but a
final act of kindness.

Super, don’t you think? The film first gives you the illusion of a happy ending. Just when you begin to take comfort in it, the film throws up this shocker. It mocks your indulgence, your self gratifying escapist mindset, your sense of hope or satisfaction.

Parallels can be obviously drawn with “The Player” (”The bastard gets away with it? I like it.”) and “Adaptation”, where Charlie Kaufmann indulges in some clever meta writing. It is easy to reject Atonement as a cheap stunt, a half baked attempt at the “Picture-in-Picture” concept. After all, the viewer is subjected to Briony’s version of events, which is later contradicted by her. What is so innovative here, you may ask.

It is the implementation of the concept that is unique. It becomes clear on a second viewing of the film. Throughout the film, several subtle hints have been scattered that what we are witnessing is actually a narrative from the point of view of Briony. Take for instance, the first ‘cut back’ sequence. Cecilia is seen running through the woods for some seconds, and then suddenly a close up of Briony looking through the window, straight into the camera, then back to Cecilia running through the woods. Is this a hint? The girl looking through the window is “Older Briony” trying to get into her own head on that faithful day many years ago.

Then there are the cut backs themselves. Before each sequence, Briony stumbles upon something private; the incident at the fountain, the obscene letter, an intimate moment in the library. The audience is made to see the events from the eyes of thirteen years old Briony. These events are factual, as Briony has witnessed them. However, Briony could not have had any knowledge of the actions or circumstances preceding the events. So these flashback sequences are fictionalized, imagined by a now mature Briony trying to fit the pieces of a puzzle.

The second half, in which the film focuses on Cecilia and Robbie individually, has a distinct dream like feel to them. After Robbie’s arrest the film forwards to the war years. Robbie writes to Cecilia saying “We can resume. Our story can resume”. Is this Robbie speaking or is this Briony herself, channeling her own wish, her own regret into Robbie’s fictious adventures?

The beauty of this film lies in the omnipresence of Older Briony and her stealthy narration. Briony’s appearances are often accompied by a score that blends in the sound of typewriter keys. This score is notably absent in the flashback sequences and when Cecilia and Robbie take centre stage. The intention is clear. The music implies the presence of Older Briony, the writer who recollects her own memories, and blends in her imagination to retell her story.

Ultimately, Atonement is a masterpiece screenplay, possibly the most inventive this year. The fact that it did not win a single Oscar is testimony to its excellence.

Originally published at


Entry filed under: films.


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