WARNING: If the header of this wasn’t a clear enough indicator, this blog will be discussing Atonement, specifically its conclusion. As such, spoilers. Be aware.
Immediately after seeing Atonement in theaters, the emotion that came boiling quickly to the top was anger. Usually, this isn’t the case with movies, if something isn’t particularly good it’s part of the majority of films being made and that’s just the truth of the matter. However, I felt that this film squandered all the good will it had built up throughout its running time (I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum from a large contingent of our message board crowd in thinking the period romance story and the performances of McAvoy and Knightley were all more than captivating enough) with a fourth wall reveal and attempt at allowing the Briony character off the hook for her actions in the earlier part of the film.
In particular, the final shots of the film (showing the fictional happy ending between the Knightley and McAvoy characters created in Briony’s storytelling) seemed to be trying to suggest that she somehow did in fact atone for her transgressions earlier in life. This triggered a cascade of bullshit alarms in my head and left such a poor taste in my mouth that I felt the entire film tumbled like a house of cards underneath the sheer force of the ending’s poor taste.
With a little time and reflection since having seen it, I get the feeling that the ending isn’t atrocious, just poorly managed. Director Joe Wright is clearly a talented man (the tracking shot earlier on is just a bolder example of the man’s talent), but I think he attempted cinematic ambiguity that instead comes across as schizophrenia. I don’t think we’re meant to come to the conclusion that Briony believes she’s done right by them with this make-believe happy ending, and little touches like the fact that she hasn’t changed her hairstyle since being a child and Vanessa Redgrave’s emotionally distant but powerful brief turn as the elder Briony suggests that she’s never really come to terms with the event that brought this whole work into existence.
However, the use of a sweeping music cue as she tries to explain herself and ending the movie with a shot of the war-torn lovers together aren’t bittersweet or heartbreaking (as I imagine they are meant to be, the sort of sucker-punch that leaves an audience weeping as they shuffle out of the cinema) but instead confusing and grating. A little more subtlety would’ve gotten across the idea that atonement isn’t something that can be earned or achieved, it’s almost entirely up to the person who’s looking for it, and unfortunately I think that somehow got lost in the translation. So I hope to see the movie again (AMC’s Best Picture deal coming up in a few weeks time would seem to be the ideal opportunity), and hopefully be able to look at the film as simply flawed instead of thematically eviscerated. In any case, the film’s ending made me think, and I’d like to think it wasn’t time poorly spent (although in my time’s defense, I’ve seen The Ex, so it might not be able to discern what is ‘good usage’ at this point). Anybody else with thoughts on the ending?