Este post foi escrito para a série Hit Me With Your Best Shot do blogue The Film Experience de Nathaniel Rogers, sendo que é aqui apresentado em inglês, ao invés do que é usual neste blogue.
First of all, I’d like to apologize for the length of the text, but Atonement is a film that means a lot to me (as any Portuguese readers can attest in my review) and I couldn’t pass the chance to talk about my appreciation of it, and especially my love for the shot I picked, the film’s ending and one of my favourite actresses. Before all that though, here are 10 runner-up shots in chronological order:
As you can see, Atonement is a gorgeous film, beautifully shot by Seamus McGarvey under the direction of Joe Wright and designed by Sarah Greenwood and Jacqueline Durran, whose sets and costumes are an essential part of the film’s overall success. I have to confess that despite their brilliance, I chose a shot that features neither sets nor costumes. I know this may be considered an obvious choice for best shot but here it is:
My Best Shot
I understand many fans of Ian McEwan’s novel truly despise the ending conceived by Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright, which allows Briony to publically confess the crimes that have consumed her life, while in the novel such unwavering and unexpressed guilt follows her unto her grave, with the book, posthumously published, acting as her titular act of atonement. While it’s true that the film drastically changes this finale, by ending on an interview where Briony explains her intentions with the publication of her, Cicely and Robert’s story, and confesses both to the world and to the audience the way in which she destroyed their lives through lying, I would like to believe that such changes don’t perniciously affect the film or make it a less complex work, rather the contrary.
You see, to me, Atonement is not a film about a love story, and not even about guilt, but rather a film about storytelling itself, its powers, and the personal tragedy of this particular author. That’s why I’m never bothered by the extremely self-conscious construction of so much of the film’s mise-en-scéne, since that same construction is part of the film’s thematic centre. The finale exacerbates this but also becomes, in its own special way, a celebration of happy endings as a narrative mechanism. Is it wrong to show kindness and forgiveness to one’s own fictitious characters? I find it’s precisely in that artificial construction and falseness of the final narrative coup that Atonement finds its most transcendent and human dimensions.
Considering such a heartfelt defence of happy endings it seems fitting that the film’s authors decided themselves to show generous empathy and forgiveness towards their protagonist, a fellow storyteller, allowing her to find some solace in life. And it isn’t as if this conclusion to Bryony’s story is of particular joyfulness and absolute catharsis, after all she’s slowly succumbing to dementia and it’s quite clear that she has spent her entire life under the strenuous and crushing burden of her guilt.
I’ve talked about the ending of the film’s narrative, but I’ve not even mentioned anything about my specific pick for best shot, that gorgeous close-up of Vanessa Redgrave’s face.
Speaking less about narrative and more about form, I do believe this is one of Atonement’s most beautiful visuals. It’s true that the film is filled with gorgeous images, like those countless shots of a summer afternoon where the bodies seem to irradiate heat, those almost operatic landscapes of wartime devastation, or the severe and purposeful shots of Briony swiftly moving through white hospital corridors. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to deny the power of the human face as an image. My favourite director, Ingmar Bergman, for example, built great part of his style on that very same understanding of the visual power of a human face, shot in close-up and confronting the audience with its humanity.
Speaking of Bergman, this shot reminds me a great deal of the final image of Harriet Andersson in Summer with Monika, one of the best films of the Swedish master’s early work. Like in the 1953 film, the audience is confronted by the direct look of the film’s protagonist as the space around her disappears into shadows, leaving the public with no escape but to confront those piercing eyes. Despite this visual similarity, the effect of both shots is quite different, mostly due to the work of its actresses. While Andersson turns that look into something like a defiant confrontation of her audience, Redgrave is doing something much more akin to a tender plea for empathy, understanding and mercy. In Briony’s eyes we don’t see defiance, but a need for forgiveness, for some sort of absolution before her sickness drowns her in the waters of oblivion. There’s something seismic about the simplicity of such an image, something powerful that transcends the film’s artificial construction, justifying it at the same time it explodes the entire edifice of the narrative with a moment of searing painful humanity.