I’ve never bothered to look into when, where or if Napoleon actually said “History is a set of lies agreed upon.” I’ve always been amused by the thought that he never did and it has merely been agreed upon that this was the case. Whoever might have actually said it would probably laugh at this outcome of events.
That thought popped into my head as the closing credits of Atonement flashed on screen today. On the whole, I liked the film more than I would have expected, having seen the trailer and subsequently anticipated an awful, schmaltzy romance set during World War II. (Love and life were hard during a war, wouldn’t you know, but damned if everything wasn’t all the more romantic! IT WAS A DIFFERENT AND EXCITING TIME!!!) However, the film’s ending posed some problems that may prevent me from giving it my seal of approval. (I’m writing about them here, if the previous sentence didn’t properly warn you. If you’d rather see the film fresh, then I’d recommend reading one of my other super exciting posts. If you’d rather take my word for it or use my own words against me in proving me wrong, then by all means continue on.)
Basically, the whole film hinges on the fact that young Briony Tallis tells a lie that results in her older sister’s sweetheart being imprisoned and then sent off to war. As one might expect, Briony’s physical and emotional growth leads her to eventually realize the ruinous nature of her actions. She then attempt to set things as right. (No characters speak the word “atonement” in the film itself. I’m thankful for this, as doing so when the title isn’t a character — Juno — a setting — Hollywoodland — or a thing central to the film — The Bucket List, though I still hate that title — takes me out of the film. Picture Briony, older and wiser, falling to her knees is some war-torn locale, clenching her fist and shouting “At last, I have found my atonement!” Laws should regulate this sort of thing.) Briony does what she can — which is not much, seeing as how her newfound conscience kicks in about five years too late — but she manages to at least spill her guts to older sister and fucked-over framed guy. She also postpones her dreams of going to Cambridge to pursue her love of writing to nurse wounded soldiers, which I’d imagine would earn her some karmic pluses. (Knees, war-torn locale, clenched fist, proclamation of film’s title.)
However, the film’s epilogue pulls a stunt that I liken to opening a trap door beneath viewers that sends them plummeting down a shaft and into the depths of polite, heartstrings-tugged theater sobbing. In an unexpected turn, the film flashes forward to present day, with Briony, now an acclaimed author, discussing her new novel, an autobiographical work that tells the story of her youthful misdeed. In essence, the majority of Atonement is the book that Briony writes, which would explain the typewriter font that explains the various settings, flashforwards and flashbacks and how the film’s soundtrack itself incorporates the sound of typewriter keystrokes. In the epilogue, the elderly and now terminally ill Briony explains in a TV interview how much she regrets her lie and how she intends for her book to set the record straight. (“ATONEMENT!”) However, she also notes that the truth can be “pitiless” and that, in the end, her book tells the story differently than it actually happened in a few important ways. Namely, the book — and the movie the audience has seen to this point — has Briony confessing her sorrow to her sister and the wronged man. Even with her confession, the lovers tell Briony to leave and never speak to her again. However, they at least live out their lives together, finally without war and scandal impeding their love. In actuality, Briony explains, the wronged man succumbed to disease and her sister perished in a bombing of a subway station, which promptly flooded and left ol’ sis’s body blue and floating, Titanic-style. In her thought process, her novel and give the star-crossed lovers the happy ending that the real world didn’t.
That noise? It’s the latch on the trap door jiggling open. Bam! Cue the sniffles and eye-wiping.
I’ll admit that this twist made me sad, but I can’t help recall the similarities to that grand champion of cinematic audience abuse: Pay It Forward, a tale of the innate goodness of the human spirit that nonetheless concludes with the angelic protagonist (Haley Joel Osment) getting knifed to death without any warning and for no other reason that to imply that the film had emotional weight when it really just sucker punched you into feeling like shit.
Atonement avoids such terrific melodrama — and that’s “terrific” in the literal sense — but still manages to pull a fast one on the viewer, who is given no clue that bittersweet ending will turn entirely sour. It emphasizes the film’s themes about the power of narrative, sure, but there’s a key difference between what one is told and what one sees. Why should the viewer suspect that what he sees with his own eyes is anything but true? Or, for that matter, why should he think that what’s being purported as actually happening is merely one person’s take on it? Again, I understand that these are the exact points the film is trying to make and they’re quite complex and interesting ones at that. But watching Atonement left me feeling jerked around, set up for a fall, and altogether manipulated. Letting me think that someone in the film might get a happy send-off and then blasting that golden sunset walk into smithereens is the cinematic equivalent of a “Made you look!” gag or possibly even an unfortunate callback to the infamously cheap, season-erasing “It was all a dream” twist from Dallas. Perhaps worst of all, it gives the impression that the writer chose to pee down both legs; as a result of not being able to decide whether to stick with the happy ending or the tragic one, the Waffle That Wrote a Script used both, a choice that doesn’t work so well in films this side of Run Lola Run. I suppose the book version of Atonement probably employed the same tactic, but such switcharoos can sometimes work better on paper than in practice.
Another result of Briony’s Big Lie, as I’m referring to this twist, is the fact that it makes Briony seem to have learned little from her first little fiblet. Approximating the truth caused this mess to begin with, so why should doing so again somehow redeem her? (“AAA-TOOONE-MEEENT!”) Whom does the truth lack pity for? Briony's readers? Briony herself, who seems resigned to admitting her misdeeds on TV? Those whose lives the lie destroyed? If it’s the last, that’s damn cheap, because the least she could do would be to depict herself in her own “autobiographical” novel as being as fully monstrous as she truly is and their suffering as tragic as it really was. This little liar owes them that much.
In the end, of course, this all swirls into that terrible vortex called “Oh, whatever.” People will sit in theaters and enjoy the supernaturally green foliage of the English countryside and the charming accents and the remarkable skill it takes to find drama in World War II. And then they’ll leave, happy to know that they can, in fact, feel both highs and lows. Some might even spend the next mulling over the commentary the film makes on the reliability of narrators and the nature of fiction itself. I, on the other hand, just can’t get past this roadblock. As long as I’m here, I’ll wonder why the film didn’t include a third ending where Briony gets superpowers that allow her to go back in time, save all her loved ones from suffering hardship, preven the war before the first shot is fired and then, finally, become Best Friends Forever with Anne Frank.
And a small source of amusement: the thought of classy, sassy Vanessa Redgrave, who plays Briony Version 3.0, meeting Saoirse Ronan and Romala Garai — the actresses who play her character’s younger versions — and trying to figure out how to pronounce their names.