I’m about to get to work on AUT but I just thought I’d put this up. The image below is my desktop on my computer, not just because I love Atonement, which of course I do, but because I think it’s an incredible shot, one that doesn’t get nearly enough play in the movie.
I think this photograph is incredible. If you haven’t read or seen Atonement you might want to navigate away while I talk about this, so that I don’t spoil it for you. First, there is the double frame, Robbie beneath the outer stone arch (representative of his outsider status, despite his posh education and good looks he’s still the charwoman’s son), Briony stretched out in the inner doorway, blocking Robbie’s entrance into the house. Their props are so significant–he’s pulling on gardener’s gloves, to show where he came from and where he is going (manual labor, hardship, prison, the war, etc.), she gripping her newly finished play, The Trials of Arabella, a play that “told a tale of the heart whose message, conveyed in a rhyming prologue, was that love which did not build a foundation on good sense was doomed.” These are the stays of Briony’s life–a very conservative sort of childlike morality has her in its grips, completely discounting the sweeping passion of the sort of love Robbie and Cecilia experience (see how close he is to nature, how far away she is from it?)–but the play also admits for a sort of love in disguise, the love that sneaks up on you in the form of a person you have known for a long time but never really recognized. The play itself is an enormously revealing thing–Robbie and Cecilia’s relationship first appears to Briony as the correlating to the relationship between Arabella and the devious count who whisks her away only to abandon her, but eventually, after many years, Briony comes to see that the truth of their love is much more that of Arabella and the doctor prince who saves her life after she falls ill. With her here, holding the play tightly, not looking at Robbie, looming over him and keeping him out, the photo is such a harbinger of things to come.
It is also (and here I come to my point) a brilliant little comment on authorship. Briony, here, is so much THE WRITER. She has her finished manuscript in her hand, but her most devastating, her finest work, starts right here, with this little tableau. She is not only Robbie’s friend (in a loose sense) here, she is his creator–she turns him into the person he becomes, she creates Robbie the Rapist, Robbie the Prisoner, Robbie the Soldier, Robbie the Epic Lover, with her lies. Here the frames take on a double-meaning; not only are they putting people in their place, separating, defining Robbie and Briony, but they are also the frames of Briony’s story, some of which necessarily fall away in the film adaptation but are preserved symbollicly here–the first frame, the farthest out, the farthest from “reality”, is Robbie’s frame, where he and Cecilia live, their lives altered forever by Briony’s fabrication and their destinies changed to assuage her guilt; then there is Briony’s frame, the authorial frame, the one we don’t recognize until it is too late; and, finally, there is the “true” perspective, that of the filmmaker (in case of the book, of Ian McEwan), the hidden frame. And then, of course, there’s us.
God, if only someday we could all create a piece of work that has a fraction of the complexity, depth, and beauty as Ian McEwan’s Atonement, I think we should all be very happy with ourselves.