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Movie Week at Mere-O: Atonement

February 20th, 2008 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

In honor of the Oscars this Sunday, I thought I would devote this week to the five films nominated for Best Picture. So far I have reviewed Juno and Michael Clayton.

Based on the bestselling novel by Ian McEwan (which I have not read), Atonement is a fascinating and complex movie that is beautifully filmed and very-well acted.

Despite some of the imagery in the film borders on being over-done and blatantly obvious, the story is nothing short of powerful and extremely thought-provoking.

Briony, a young girl with a lively imagination and a penchant for writing, is led through a series of misperceptions to wrongfully accuse Robbie (James McAvoy), a Cambridge educated servant who is in love with Briony’s sister (Kiera Knightley), of raping Briony’s cousin. The accusation lands Robbie in jail, separating Cecilia (Knightley) and Robbie from each other. Robbie is granted parole when WWII breaks out if he joins the Army, further separating Cecelia and Robbie.

Ultimately, the story hinges upon the question of sin. How, if there is no atoning work of Christ, can we find atonement? Briony’s later realization of her error (and her inability to correct it) drives her to reject Cambridge to work as a nurse, where she ends up cleaning bedpans and confronting the reality of sin (through war) directly.

Yet it is not just Briony who is in need of atonement. Robbie and Cecelia find themselves in their unhappy situation because of the illicit nature of their love. Ultimately, their passionate natures make them more like Paola and Francesca from Dante’s Inferno—wraiths floating upon the wind. Their relationship recalls T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock—Cecelia quotes it directly at one point (“that is not what I meant at all”) and when they find themselves reunited before Robbie leaves for war, they sit drinking tea, presumably while others around them are “talking of Michaelangelo.” There is an emptiness to their love that is ultimately dissatisfying, which is only to be expected given that it is expressed only in a fit of passion.

Whether the movie presents a solution to the problem of atonement is an important question. If anything, the movie presents art and the imagination as having a salvific—and damning—power. While the movie clearly points to the need for cleansing (the water imagery, which so recalls baptism, is difficult to miss), its overly optimistic view of aesthetics is clearly a shortcoming.

That said, Atonement may be my favorite film of the year, if only because it is more “watchable” than No Country for Old Men. It is visually and musically gripping. There is a lengthy single-shot scene of Robbie walking through the beaches of Dunkirk that is, to be blunt, stunning. This YouTube clip doesn’t nearly do the whole scene justice.

It is also a deeply stirring film that makes palpable the need for redemption and restoration. The director’s choice of John Greenleaf Whittier’s Dear Lord and Father of Mankind expresses beautifully this longing, and the hope that Christians have that it will yet be fulfilled. I end with the last two verses:

Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.