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I saw it this weekend, and since it did so well at the Golden Globes and will probably do well at the Oscars, I thought I'd say a few words about it.

The story is set in Britain just before the onset of WWII. Briony, a 13 year-old girl from a wealthy family who dreams of being a writer, bears false witness against Robbie, the groundskeeper's son. Robbie and Briony's sister Cecilia are in love with one another, and Cecilia's accusations split them apart as Robbie first goes to jail, and then is offered out by serving in the war.

Most of the interesting stuff deals with the ending, so I'll put that discussion below a spoiler alert, only to say that the pacing of the film is turgid. There's subtlety, and then there's boring you're audience to death by creeping along at the pace of a snail. Also, along with being slow, the movie is told slightly asynchronously, occasionally seeing the outcome and then backing up in time to see how we led up to that point. The subjective feeling is that the movie is not actually moving forward, but that it keeps sliding backwards, ala Sisyphus and that damned rock. I don't know if the novel was written this way, but it sucks much of the momentum and pacing out of the movie and makes it feel twice as long as it already is.


But some of the real problems were with the ending. Near the end we see a scene where Briony goes to her sister to apologize and try to atone for what she's done. She is surprised to find Robbie there as well, and he threatens her with violence before telling her that she will sign written statements revoking her earlier testimony. She agrees and Cecilia and Robbie live happily ever after.

Then we get a shot of Briony as an old woman, and we learn that she has indeed become a writer. She has just written her 21st novel, entitled Atonement, and she is giving a television interview about it. And then we learn that the scene between her and Cecilia and Robert was in her book, but was a fabrication. Supposedly all that had come before that was real. However, in reality, Cecilia died in the bombing of London and Robbie died of sepsis in France. So Briony was never able to make things right and the two lovers were denied their lives together. The old Briony then explains that through her novel she was finally able to give them the time together they deserved. Her novel was her atonement.

To which I roll my eyes. I could imagine ways in which an author might right a wrong through their fiction, but this is not one. The people are dead, and fictionally resurrecting and uniting them might soften her guilt at some level, but if she really is viewing it as some sort of atonement, that's not just stupid, it's grotesque.

If I owe someone $20,000 and they die before I can pay them back, writing a story in which I give them their money and they spend it on wonderful things isn't an actual way of paying them back.

So the title should have been something like "Wish Fulfillment." That would have been more fitting.

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