Losing The Plot

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.


  1. I liked the book better than the movie–but then again, isn’t that usually the case?

    I have mixed feelings about that ending–it was a surprising twist, and I do like surprises. But at the same time, it made the novel ending very “neat and tidy,” not my favorite type of novel ending.

    Atonement is the kind of novel that I like more and more as I think about and look back on the story, though.

  2. Read the book, skipped the movie. I remember thinking the end of Atonement being very clever and then very sad, which appealed to me. It surprised me, the sudden change of perspective, although I guess it really didn’t change because it was always Briony’s, and remained so.

  3. I also haven’t read the book yet-I think I’m most curious about how the ending with the older Briony is done most of all. The movie though left me feeling unsettled by its revelation. The snarky side of me saw it as Briony attempting to exorcise her guilt by giving them a happy ending, a psychiatric writing exercise to ease her pain. As if her betrayal of them encircled the three of them in a forced doomed fates out of Greek tragedy. It made me think of James Frey, (fictional movie) real life masquerading as (fictional movie) fiction. Although my non-snarky side wondered about every writer’s last work, knowing it’s the last chance to write what is most personal to them. And maybe real life intersects with the last work more often.

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