Friday, August 22, 2008

Briony’s Unsatisfying Atonement

In the past couple weeks, in separate conversations, I’ve been asked for recent movie recommendations and found myself almost entirely at a loss. In the last few months I have only seen two movies that I can strongly recommend. Blame the writer’s strike I guess. My wife and I are in possessions of hearts. We were as enamored as any one else with Juno. But the real winner, which stands out all the more in contrast to its almost non-existent competition, was Atonement. When my friend Dan recently got me to unpack why I liked this movie so much, I was surprised by my answer. I loved Atonement because I felt its conclusion was entirely unsatisfying.

Spoiler alert: I do recommend seeing this movie. However, it is the kind of movie where the experience will be significantly diminished by knowing too much about the ending. I suggest postponing this post if you have any interest in the movie but haven’t seen it. I will try to talk in generalities and not give too much away but it will make more sense if you’ve seen the movie.

Atonement follows the life of a precocious pre-teen Briony, who out of childish jealousy tells a pernicious lie. Due to the immanent start of WWII this lie ends up irreparably devastating the lives of the two people she cares about the most. From about the half way point, the movie follows the Briony’s psychological trauma as a young adult and ailing senior as she tries to atone for the damage done. The young woman turns down a spot at Cambridge in favor of a hard life of military nursing. You can almost feel her futile attempt to pile good deeds on some cosmic scale against the dark sin of her childhood. There is a great scene during her nurse’s training where she is scrubbing the floor and then her hands in a Macbethian frenzy. In the background she read a letter to her sister:

Dear Cecilia, Please don’t throw this away without reading it. As you’ll have seen from the notepaper, I’m here at St. Thomas’s, doing my nurses’ training. I decided not to take up my place at Cambridge. I decided I wanted to make myself useful, do something practical. But no matter how hard I work, no matter how long the hours, I can’t escape from what I did and what it meant, the full extent of which I’m only now beginning to grasp. Cee, please write and tell me we can meet. Your sister, Briony.

The movie ends with an interview of an old and dying Briony, who has since become a great novelist. She is still sad and reflective, and reveals that the effects of her childhood lie were actually far more devastating than we had originally believed. But she seemed to have found a troubled peace, a thin ‘atonement,’ in recreating the ruined lives in a work of fiction. She eased her tormented conscience by giving the people she loved the life they could have had were it not for her youthful intervention.

Until the final moments Atonement was gripping and fully emotionally vesting. Every bit of dialogue and every emotion rung true. Joe Wright is quickly becoming one of my favorite film makers and his work was rightly recognized here. This final resolution, however, was entirely unsatisfying and it stood out dramatically against the backdrop of two hours of narrative with emotional resonance.

In my opinion, the stark failure of the ending actually made the movie more powerful. Because, honestly, apart from vicarious atonement Briony had no better option. Giving the tragic characters the lives they were cheated out of in a work of fiction is a hollow atonement, but it was the best available to her. And as the credits rolled the brought with them a wave of despair and emptiness.

The topic of vicarious atonement is not an abstract category for me. I have some experience with the despair of personal responsibility for broken lives. In the summer of ’97, between the time I spent in Nepal and the beginning of grad school in Wisconsin, I worked as an Assistant Program Director at a Mennonite Summer Camp in Lewis County. Towards the end of the summer I was involved in an accident that left a 12 year old in a coma. I cannot articulate the depth of despair. The guilt was soul crushing. I resonated with Briony’s complete lack of resources to atone for her actions.

The story of the accident ends with miraculous grace.[1] The young man made a full recovery. But God does not always choose to do that kind of thing. And what interests me here is the weeks of uncertainty that preceded the boy’s awakening from the coma.[2] No amount of good could have been accumulated to off set the pain I had caused. I needed Atonement from an external source, beyond my resources. And this was the moment at which the gospel was most real to me. Under the unbearable weight of accusation brought by my conscience and socialization[3] I learned to point to the cross. At the center of the story of Jesus is a cosmic transfer of guilt. Never have I found theology more existentially applicable. Our maker has not left us without resources in this broken world, even when we are the ones doing the breaking.

I guess it is my experience with guilt[4] that made the Briony’s solution ring hollow. It may seem a poetic turn or a clever lemonade out of lemons response, but fundamentally it is not a sufficient atonement. And I think the film maker understands this, sending his protagonist into the haze of forgetfulness and death a devastated woman with a thin supporting narrative. And this is why I found it so impactful. Because I have known Atonement. It is powerful and it is sufficient…but only because it was acquired by a champion who is both of those things.
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[1] I mean, seriously, have you ever looked at the statistics on how often CPR ‘works.’ It is practically a placebo. And don’t even get me started on people waking from comas or the dismal range of outcomes for those who do survive either CPR or comas.
[2] As well as the question ‘what if he hadn’t?’
[3] Among other more sinister sources.
[4] And here I am speaking of actual, ontological, guilt, not a misplaced or socialized emotion.

1 comment:

Corrie said...

One of your best posts yet, I think. The personal connection is artfully shared and packs quite a punch.

It might reveal a bit too much about me to say that I watched the trailer, wanted to watch the movie (because c'mon, I enjoy Kiera Knightley, especially with Joe Wright directing, even if my hubby thinks she's too skinny and has funny teeth), heard it was "sad," read a full movie and novel synopsis, and decided ultimately not to watch the movie because it would be too depressing. Even just reading the wikipedia synopsis was depressing because of that very unsatisfactory ending that you unpack.

All that's to say that your insightful post atones for Atonement, for me at least...