Another month. Another Afternoon Tea at the Alamo Drafthouse. And though we’re both veterans of this selection, we just couldn’t help but discuss. Joe Wright’s Atonement is one of the most beautiful pictures in recent memory. And with 10 years of distance since it first graced screens, we’ve gained a lot of perspective. Annemarie, kick us off, will you?
A: What a tragic story, and I didn’t even realize how much Dunkirk plays a part! Let’s start with the most controversial aspect: Whether or not any of the London scenes between Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and Robbie (James McAvoy) actually happened, or did Briony make it all up to amend for her sins? I am still not sure after 10 years, so I’d love to start off with that. Brooke, what are your thoughts on what’s real and what’s constructed?
B: Wow, coming in hot with the big questions. Like you, I’ve never arrived at a satisfactory answer to this question. I even read the book, and I’m still not totally sure what is a fabrication and what isn’t. Possibly I did once, but if I did, that time has passed. In any case, we KNOW that the meeting in 1940 between Briony, Cecilia and Robbie did not happen, because Briony tells us so. We know that Robbie never left Dunkirk and that Cecilia’s own tragic death followed quickly thereafter. We know that Robbie went to prison and then to the army. We know that Cecilia became a nurse and moved to Balham. And that’s where things get murky.
We’re told that Robbie and Cecilia exchanged letters. We hear them in voiceover, some of them anyway. And from this, we’re to assume that they arranged their meeting over coffee. Ostensibly, this is before Robbie goes to France, so it’s possible in the sense that they were both still alive. Now, if Cecilia, as we’re told and can reasonably believe, did leave her family, it makes sense that she would have stayed in touch with Robbie and taken the chance to see him when she could. How Briony would have become privy to this information is beyond me, but I suppose she’s quite a good researcher. And so, I choose to believe that those letters, and this one meeting, really did take place. I expect that it was very awkward, but also sweet, and that it filled them both with the promise of something to hold on to, even though it would never come to fruition. What do you say, AM?
I’ll pause here to observe that this train of thought, plus my new understanding of Dunkirk combined to give this movie more of a devastating punch than I recall it having for me in past viewings. I was a mess, but I don’t think I ever let the enormity of it all in before. And so, though I have my issues with Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, it made me realize that Atonement is even more wonderful than I’ve given it credit for in the past, and I love it for that. I know this was your second watch too, and that you didn’t contend with floods — does it resonate with you emotionally still? Admittedly, I was in a bit of a wacky headspace, and therefore level 7 susceptible, but tell me your thoughts.
Also, and everyone knew this was coming, let’s talk about the dresses.
A: I like your theorizing and I shall agree with you. It’s true that we don’t know how Briony could have known about the coffee date in London before Robbie shipped off to France, but perhaps Cecilia told her sister? There’s some indication that Briony was indeed in contact with Cecilia, even if she didn’t really meet them in person in London. I prefer this scenario, even if we don’t have concrete evidence that any of it happened. I love the idea that Briony is not only atoning for her accusation of Robbie, but her failure to make amends before they both died tragically young. It definitely packs an emotional punch, even if I didn’t quite achieve weeping status. And you’re also right that the horror of Dunkirk portrayed here is given new context with Christopher Nolan’s newer film. I liked Dunkirk more than you did (Tom Hardy’s presence notwithstanding) and liked the bending of time much more than you did. At any rate, the gravitas of 400,000 men sitting on a beach waiting to be rescued is hinted at in Atonement, but it’s a much more personal story, and therefore sticks very close to Robbie’s version of events and perspective.
OMG the dresses. I really only want to talk about The Dress, the green one, that was probably sewn specifically for Keira Knightley and is possibly the most perfect dress in the history of the world. Honorable mention goes to the complete getups of everyone lounging around in the English countryside. Do you have a second best choice since I know you’re going to agree with me on the emerald number?
And on a more serious note, what do you think about Briony’s atonement? Do you think her efforts in memorializing her sister and brother-in-law are successful?
B: I would have to be insane not to agree with you about The Dress. It is astonishing. It’s the dress I imagine myself in when I imagine myself glamorous and in a giant manor in the English countryside. That dress should have been given a Best Picture Oscar for its very existence. It’s the kind of piece you imagine Edith Head dressing Grace Kelly in. And therefore, it is almost too magnificent. If I had to pick a runner-up here, I would go with the rather sheer, sparsely flower and lace decorated slinky thing Cecilia is wearing during the water fountain encounter. It feels extremely rebellious and highly proper all at once, and I dig it.
As to Briony’s atonement, I do think it is successful. As a writerly type myself, and someone who is destroyed by wish fulfillment in pictures (see this, the end of La La Land and the opening of Up), I find her solution quite elegant. Yes, she ruined everything on a level that would make Bran Stark proud, but she was a child. So, even though she didn’t get it right soon enough, it’s kind of beautiful that she makes it her final gesture, her entire legacy to make herself the villain and to give Robbie and Cecilia a taste of the life they were denied. It’s clear that she’s carried the weight around for all her days, and I tend to believe she did right by them.
However, there is someone else to whom I think Briony owes a bit more: Lola. Poor Lola thought flirting with the chocolate maker was a bit of a laugh. He saw a young girl playing at adulthood and decided to rape her. We can’t know for sure if she knows it’s him who assaults her in the dark, or if she trusts Briony’s assertions that it was Robbie. But, we do know that Lola goes on to marry her rapist, probably in full knowledge (and fear) of what he is, and Briony does nothing to save her from a life under his thumb. Let’s have your thoughts on Lola’s tragic trajectory.
A: Ugh, Lola. This gets tricky because it’s impossible to know if she knew it was him in the dark. However, we can assume based upon her injuries earlier in the evening that the outside encounter wasn’t the first. Presumably, she did know it was him. Plus, the look on her face when Briony insists it’s Robbie also indicates to me that she knew Briony was mistaken/misguided but does nothing to discourage her. Again, this is a bit of sleuthing and presumption, but I’d also argue that her demeanor during the wedding is also indicative of a person who knows she’s doing the wrong thing. With all of that being said, my heart goes out to her but ultimately, Robbie must suffer for her sins as well as Briony’s, and that’s fundamentally unfair.
I don’t know what Briony owes her seeing that she’s married Mr. Cumberbatch. (This film, by the way, is a large reason I’m not a HUGE fan of the actor portraying the chocolate dude. Not his fault, but if you’re going to play an unredeemed villain, that’s the price you pay. My distaste for you.) Sure, she could try to extract Lola from her situation, but realistically, cannot do a thing to stop any of it.
Here’s another wrench for you: what if the wedding scene was also a figment of Briony’s imagination?
B: Just had to mess with my reality, didn’t you? Before I go into that alarming train of thought, I will elaborate on what I mean when I say I think Briony owes Lola a bit more. While Briony is running around acting like the sky is falling because she read her sister’s private correspondence, Lola is being sexually abused by the chocolate maker. As much as she likes playing the adult, that trauma is going to remind her that she’s a powerless child. And a girl at that — a bummer of a combination in this era. We know now that victims of abuse often find themselves unable to speak out, whether because they are too scared or because they’ve been led to believe they deserve it or any other number of terribly sad reasons. So, when Lola tells Briony, I couldn’t be sure, I read that as Lola thinking Briony is acting to protect her from the wrath of the chocolate maker. I see the chocolate maker telling Lola she’s ruined and no one else will want her until she believes it. And Lola marrying him because she feels she has no other option. And I see him working hard to ensure this so Lola cannot testify against him. And so, I think Briony owes the truth to Lola quite as much as she does to Robbie, but she chooses to hold her peace in the church instead of rectifying her mistake in some small way and freeing Lola.
Okay, now on to this consideration of the wedding as a construction of Briony’s. I had never considered this possibility, but I’m ready to buy it. Here’s why. We know Briony constructed the story she did for Robbie and Cecilia as way to give them the future she denied them. What if she manufactured this scene to exacerbate how her continued failure to speak up doomed Lola to marrying her rapist and prevented Robbie from ever formally clearing his name? It’s almost as if by attending the wedding and not telling the truth she’s telling the lie all over again. What do you think?
I also want your thoughts on this. Who do you think made the better nurse: Briony or Cecilia? And does thinking about those hospital sequences make you glad for even the worst day at our comparatively dreary desk jobs? I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I would have been able to keep it together quite so well if I loosened a bandage and saw an exposed brain.
A: Are you thinking Briony invented the wedding to continue to punish herself over her lack of action? I can see that, for sure. If it was real, and Briony had spoken up, unfortunately, I don’t know that it would have changed a damn thing. For one, Lola was legally wed to her rapist, which would make it impossible for her to do anything but leave him (and that would be tough in 1940s Britain). And for another, would Lola have even believed Briony? I can see Briony still being upset at herself, but ultimately, even if she had, Lola was already doomed.
Onto another bright and cheery subject: wartime nursing! I have a problem with blood and therefore would have made the WORST nurse. I don’t know that we saw Cecilia in action to say whether she was any good, but definite props to Briony for holding her shit together and providing comfort and support to a dying man. I like to think I could hold someone’s hand, talk to them, provide some semblance of relief, but I honestly don’t know if that’s in my disposition. Hopefully a thing I don’t have to worry about, but one just never knows.
Let’s just think back to The Dress as a palate cleanser. Ahhhhhhhh.
B: Indeed. I am suggesting that if Briony manufactured the wedding it was to punish herself. Cause, you know, that’s the point of this whole thing. Atonement. And stuff.
Yeah, let’s cut to The Dress one last time. If you know me, you know it’s no exaggeration when I say, I just thought “Come back to me” in my best Keira Knightley voice in order to summon the image.