At the beginning, as the rental version of Atonement downloads into my computer for the magical 24 hours iTunes allows, I imagine I can do other things while it’s on, like I do when I “watch” television via the internet–it’s a split screen for me often, several planes happening at the same time, so that I’m often reading blogs with political news while pretty people do things that are sort of like life at the edge of what I’m reading. But as the film begins I realize I can’t.
The film is lyrically made, I think. I felt a real sense for the poetry of the moments chosen. I’d read about the enormous house, which was described in the Times as being a kind of big, ugly house of its type, but in the film it feels beautiful. Although perhaps I like ugly houses.
I watch the film, take breaks for homeopathic cough syrup, hot whiskey toddies, and at one point, a black bean and egg snack. And then it ends in a way I don’t expect, with a writer talking at the screen about regret.
If you haven’t seen the film or read the book, this is a spoiler alert, and you shouldn’t read the rest of this post.
At the end of the film, the Briony character is an author who is dying and tells us this is her last book. I haven’t read the novel, so I don’t know how that’s handled there–it’s next for me. But I’ve been thinking about this final moment, when she tells an interviewer about how her novel, also called Atonement, and how the characters met the tragic ends that life chooses—dead in the bombing of London, dead on the day the troops finally left Dunkirk. Unlike in the novel, where they find each other again and pursue a passionate affair finally, though it’s boundaried by the tragedy that the beginning descibes. The tragedy of the novel, a tragedy of misunderstanding and jealousy.
She tells the camera, she wanted it to be better for them, a final act of kindness.
I’m not saying I didn’t believe it. I’m tired of the trend of people thinking that something is impossible or wrong just because they can’t imagine how they would do it. I did, and I tried to think of what I’d do if I were dying, and knew my mind was going away. If I would take on the task of remaking my own life’s events into something better as a way to make amends to people I’ve wronged. I realized that in some ways, what holds my life together is that I never try to do that. That I don’t even think that I could do that. I think what holds my life together is that I know, if I were to look down that road, I’d lose the way entirely. I thought she was an interesting figure, but I didn’t know how to be her.
The expression is “lose the plot”, for when people are somehow unclear about their role in their own life, and I think that’s kind of funny, actually, as we’re never really aware, just as characters in novels are never really aware, of what we do and who we wrong. We can and often do do our best to know, but we don’t get to know, usually, and part of the fascination in reading a novel is watching someone, who doesn’t know. We get to see what it is like to be alive in a way we’ll never tell ourselves otherwise.