Atonement Overlooked

Deena Mueller

Through the aid of two cups of coffee and several welcome distractions, I managed to survive the Oscars on Sunday night. Three hours after turning the TV on, I was more disillusioned with Hollywood than ever before. Do people even know what a good movie is anymore? Halfway through the torturous spectacle of thank-you’s and poor fashion choices (Really, Tilda Swinton, what were you wearing?), the academy ran a tribute to all the previous winners of Best Picture. Remember some of the films from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s? Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, The Best Years of our Lives, Ben-Hur? Those movies had it all. Smart, meaningful dialogue; epic sets and costumes; quality acting and the long lost art of writing a decent screenplay.

And yet emerging from a sea of mediocrity was one movie actually worthy of winning a coveted academy award this year. Atonement reminds me of those old classics. It’s an epic story of love and betrayal that conveys the horrors of war without showing a single battle sequence. Days after seeing it you’re still humming the hauntingly stirring musical score, set perfectly to the film’s action. It has strong dialogue and convincing acting. Phenomenal cinematography complete with elaborate uses of camera angles along with what should have won for Best Adapted Screenplay make Atonement well worth seeing. However, it is the message of the film that sets it apart from the rest of today’s movies.

Rather than mindless car chases and explosions, Atonement commands your attention as it reveals one of life’s darkest truths: you cannot always atone for what you’ve done. Perhaps a little preachy, but it is good to be reminded of from time to time. So often in life we kid ourselves with the idea of second chances. In reality, they rarely exist. Unfortunately, we must often live with the consequences of our actions. As Robert Redford so poignantly said in the Natural, “Some mistakes you never stop paying for.”

While watching Atonement, viewers expect to see Briony manage to right her wrongs. As if being young insures you against making irrevocable mistakes! It doesn’t! Plenty of young people have ruined their lives, or the lives of others, because of just one mistake. Case in point: every week I go visit developmentally challenged elderly people in a home in Hamilton. One resident is there because when he was in his twenties he DUI’ed and hit a tree at 120 mph, killing his friends and leaving himself brain damaged. Now he functions on the level of a child and will spend the rest of his natural life in an institution, all because of that one mistake. There are thousands of stories just like that one, where the consequences are permanent no matter how much penance you do.

Some people have said that Atonement didn’t win Best Picture because it left people cold. (I’d say that’s unlikely. It’s not like No Country for Old Men was the feel good movie of the year!) However, they were partially right; it was depressing and hard to watch. Hearing that the mistakes you make might follow you for the rest of your life is not a warmly received idea. But it is a valid one. Perhaps Atonement was able to make people walk out of the theater and rethink some of their actions and avoid making those irreversible, life changing mistakes? Forget what the Academy thinks! If Atonement was able to that, it was the Best Picture in my eyes.