Log in


ATONEMENT - More symbolisms


From IMDb's ATONEMENT board: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0783233/board

I think Atonement is all about the power of stories and how they affect lives. Briony tells a story when she was a girl that ultimately keeps Robbie and Cecilia apart and even contributes to their deaths. Robbie would not have been in the army and Cecilia wouldn't have been a nurse. I have no remorse for Briony because at the end she states that "she" gave them happiness. She is a very self centered individual and as an author she sacrifices art for what a reader wants. As Robbie said, "No Rhymes" just write a true account and she could not do it. The movie is brilliant in how it realizes the apartment scene because Briony is played very uncomfortably and very stilted by the actress. I believe Joe Wright made this decision because that was when Briony the author was really writing herself and it was hard for her to make her a character as she had done with her younger self.
by seanmicsu

"I think Atonement is all about the power of stories and how they affect lives." --This is pretty much a perfect assessment of the film.

When I first came across your post, I have to be honest. I was like meta-wha..? I see meta-anything, and my brain freezes. To the unfamiliar, Wiki defines it as "a type of fiction that self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction... posing questions about the relationship between fiction and reality..." Thanks, Wiki!

Okay, this is deep. What purpose is served by making it seem Robbie and Cee end well? Their sad end is a forgone conclusion, so WHY does Briony concoct a happy one? This is where people bring their own rationalizations. The reasons they attribute to Briony are more of a reflection of their own world view than that of the character.

I find it ironic that while Briony is as much to blame for BOTH endings, both happy and tragic, neither would exist without her.

I don't know how much of her motivation for doing so is explained in the book, but the film is very brief and by no means definitive on this point. Her actions can be seen as either selfish or repentant, egomaniacal or unconditionally sad. It is courageous of the filmmakers to leave it so openly interpretable.

So what does Atonement say about the writer and the power of stories? 'Cause in the end, the book is a commentary on the purpose of fiction. It doesn't come clean with any answers but it brings up a lot of questions. Why do we have happy endings? Is there a deeper catharsis when tragedy leaves its mark? What are the conditions for this catharsis so the reader feels redeemed for the experience rather than depressed and angry? And for me, is there a value in making this distinction?
by gerberdais

Atonement reminds me of that masterpiece of a movie called Blow Up, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. As in Blow Up, in Atonement we have this dynamic between reality and fiction, which is the most haunting thing about them. In Blow Up (based on one of the best short stories you would read, Julio Cortazar's Las babas del Diablo), a fashion photographer happens to discover a crime while taking pictures in a park --or that's what he thinks up until the amazingly ironic, metafiction-related end.
by Christian-Doig

What I love about Atonement is its complexety, altough the story - and the film - appears to be simple and uncomplicated. But there are so many things going on - one being how we relate to the story of Briony, Robbie and Cee as if it were real, and how we judge the characters based on our sense of reality. Too many people who have seen the film asked me later if it was based on a true story - I find this fascinating, because the film carries itself almost like a haunting fable, allegoric, even surreal at some points. Still, the tragic events, the pain of those characters resonate so much with us, that it's like we're projecting ourselves in a situation like that, imagining how it would be to betray someone we love, to be the one betrayed, to never be able to put things right again, to never be able to reconstruct our lives, to unexpectedly have our lives turned upside down, because of small, insignificant things we didn't care about. The sadness of it all is that, in life, there are so many things which escape our control. Not everyone will get a happy ending, even the ones who deserve it.

When we watch the end of Atonement, and see how the lives of Robbie and Cee could have been, we face a dilemma: either we accept that our notion of happy endings, for life in general, can be as improbable as that happy ending for Cee and Robbie we see on the screen, or we accept that sometimes fiction can heal, and could make real life better or at least, tolerable. And maybe that's why a lot of people feel frustrated or confused by the ending of Atonement; they don't know if they have to deal with it on the levels of reality or mere fiction. 
by cris-a

Fiction exists to complete reality, to make justice and give us --the readers, the viewers-- freedom (and not only for the duration of the movie). Appearances have a reality of their own whenever you think of how different they can get from every different person that approaches the same object/subject. It's like all those female teens who read Twilight, and then, out of the many smart ones who didn't dig the screen adaptation at all, they are still so different from each other because at the end it's not about the outside reality --not even of a novel or a flick--, but about who they are as individuals. And that affects everything we touch with our minds. The subjectivity in regards to fiction and the "real" world is the central theme to Atonement, and it is just fascinating to reckon.
by Christian-Doig

I think the library scene, quasi-crucifiction and all, is symbolic of the films postmodernity; the combining of their bodies with the accoutrements of the bookcase (the stepladder, shelves, books etc) is a quiet indication of their fictionality, as much as they are subsumed by each other, they are inevitably bound to their own grand narrative. Interestingly, I found Bryony's own symbolism was the most provocative; from the start it is clear she is the omniscient narrator. This is signified by her play at the beginning, perhaps underpinned by being the first character on screen, and then at the end when we find she has written what we, the audience, think has been a semblence of 'reality' it brings to the fore how powerful her character is, and how she she has given to and taken from her protagonists. For example, she took away their love, and then gives it back to them in her own piece of fiction. Interestingly again she removes herself from their happiness in her fictionalised ending; we see them through her eyes, we see their relationship as one based on physicality, denoted by Cecelia calming him down by kissing him, the almost sordid reference to the unmade bed and Robbie erupting in anger, a personality trait that had not surfaced before. Her portrayal of the couple is very intimate and is almost uncomfortable to watch, as if the audience feel they are intruding, just like Bryony does.

Just as an aside, I actually felt pity for Bryony; she is also a victim of her creation and shows perhaps more humility than cecelia does in the opening segment. She is more human, I think, than the mythological Cecelia and Robbie; she is envious of her older sister, she clearly has a school girl crush on Robbie and does something which is irrevocable out of jealousy and anger. I have to remind myself that they are characters as well as symbols, as much as we all get carried away with our own hypothesis.
by emmaisabutterfly

It could hardly be their own grand narrative in that the Robbie and Cee the audience comes to know in the course of the film are really characters in Briony's fictionalized account of events. If anything, its Briony's grand narrative. She is the one writing the story, controlling the perspective, even creating events. The fictionalized Robbie and Cee (who are all the audience ever really sees) are just objects in the world of Briony's narrative and, as such, are not in the position to define themselves within the conext of their own grand narrative.

It is thought provoking, though. What would you say is the grand narrative reflected in this film?
 by jessikaaguilar

This was rather the point I was trying to make; I do not refer to Cee and Robbies grand narrative as their own construct, but one that is enforced upon them. When I say they are bound to their own grand narrative I refer to their textuality; they exist as characters which the audience build a relationship with but also as subtext in the fiction of Bryony. I agree that fundamentally Bryony is the creator of their grand narrative, but as a character she also has a grand narrative; the film really exists on two levels.

"What would you say is the grand narrative reflected in this film?" I take it by this you mean which is the true grand narrative? Which is most linear and transparent? If this is what you mean then I would say it is actually a combination of both story lines; that of Bryony and the story of Cee and Robbie which is true, we must remember, to a certain point but distorted through it's regurgitation. Technically speaking a grand narrative is something which explains, posthumously, knowledge and experience, so really the only metanarrative which is viable is Bryony's.

Just in reference to your point about Robbie + Cee being a creation of Briony (or rather your reference to a reference you thought I'd made...lol) I see Robbie and Cee as only created by Briony in their narrative, if you think of the characters as fibres, indeed some larger than others, then Briony would have sewn those fibres together; this is what I mean by it being Brionys narrative. I know they are 'real' characters, but through Briony's interpretation of events they could have become distorted ~Cee says of Briony - 'She can be rather fanciful'~. In regard to your point as well, INeedUnguent, she couldn't have reconstructed that scene completely factually, so some of it we have to admit is her interpretation. They say that when you remember childhood as an adult you remember it with childish emotions; I think the latter is perhaps why we see Robbie and Cee in such extremes, and why their characters are so polarised. To perhaps stretch this point beyond its limit, at the beginning of the film we see some scenes repeat themselves, through different perspectives, and then we settle into one relatively linear sequence, so who's perspective did we settle into? We know it's not the 'true' perspective as we are told at the end, so the only real conclusion is that it is Briony's.

Interesting point about the father and the holy spirit, I can't claim I've studied much biblical imagery but I like the idea. Along that theme would you say the biblical imagery extends to the women around him? I'm not sure about it, could have been more of an allegorical thing, like he sacrificed himself for others sins. Hmmmm....
by emmaisabutterfly

Anyway, when Briony and Fiona rush out to help the wounded, Briony suddenly gets a glimpse of Robbie...or at least, someone that looks exactly like James McAvoy that isn't credited :), but we all know it was Robbie.

Now, if this was after the Dunkirk evacuation, it COULD be Robbie's ghost since he had died in France before departure, or Robbie "rose from the dead on the 3rd day", much like Jesus Christ had, to prove himself to others.

Interesting. It was James McAvoy, pinkconverse, I caught that when I finally watched the movie on DVD for the first time. I was shocked because I didn't see him in on my first viewing at the theatre, it's just a flash but it is definitely him. We know that Robbie died on the last day of the evacuation so that would have been immediately before the evacuees reached Briony's hospital, and possibly, depending how long it took to evacuate and get there, the same day she "thought" she saw him.

To add to the significance of the number 3 here, it is also interesting that Briony's hospital sequence begins 3 weeks before Robbie's death.

Personally I'm disinclined to think it was Robbie's ghost haunting her, if only because I like to think of him as resting in peace and I don't think he would be vengeful toward her. I originally took her "seeing" him as simply the product of her intense desire that he would be among the evacuees, but perhaps it is symbolic of HIS forgiveness, as if he is there to give her his blessing, since it occurs immediately before the redemptive scene with Luc. This fits in very nicely with the Christic imagery (and your idea of a "resurrected" Robbie) since Robbie, now having "given" his life because of her sin, would be the symbolic agent of her redemptive act of kindness toward another soldier.

It's also interesting that in the scene with Luc Briony, though she is complicit with his delusions, does not lie, she does not fabricate or embellish anything herself. Again, because her god complex was at play when she lied about the rape we see a contrasting image of her here, she is passive, yielding her reality to someone else's need rather than forcing her fiction onto others.
by emakii

I agree with what you said about Robbie "returning" to Briony in the post atop. It makes watching her scene with Luc more poignant, to think that maybe Robbie returned not to haunt her, but to forgive her, allowing Briony to have that emotional connection with Luc.
Altough, even if Robbie forgave her, she would never be able to forgive herself, eh? Much like Judas to Jesus. Judas hated himself so much after what he did that he couldn't go on living anymore. We can see how much Briony hated herself too, that she thought she only deserved Robbie's anger and Cee's spite and coldness in the confrontation scene. And in a way Briony ceased "living" and was forever a prisioner of young Briony's actions.
by cris-a

It's easy to forget that not only did Briony fabricate the ending, but that the ENTIRE MOVIE/BOOK--no matter how factually accurate she tried to make it--was filtered entirely through Briony's point of view. All the conversations she wasn't there to witness (especially those between Cee and Robbie, whose conversations had no witnesses) were written by the adult Briony as she imagined they would have said them. The obvious guilt that Briony is carries isn't so much evidenced in what she says as the fact that Cee and Robbie's characters are almost flawless, but the Briony character is so easy to hate.

Someone used the term "mythological" to describe Cee and Robbie. I think it fits perfectly. In the context of the story, Cee and Robbie WERE real people, but the ones we are witness to are wholly characters constructed by Briony based on them. It's ironic because the reason for their destruction was because the 13-year-old Briony used them as characters to act out the script in her head, and now the 77-year-old Briony uses them, yet again, as characters in her attempt at atonement.
by invisigothx11

And an entry by enchantee</lj>  at  http://community.livejournal.com/fadingatonement/

I definitely agree about the tracking shot, although I think it can be pushed even further: I think that the whole film can be seen as a commentary on film. Much like the book, which explores the way in which ideas, feelings, and memory in writing are all inevitably mediated through the construct of words, I think that the film is very effective in demonstrating the power of illusion and images that we create, and accept as audiences. Take the opening shot-- preceded by the sound of Briony's typing, the first thing we see is a doll house: a miniature replica of the life that these characters are familiar with. Pulling back, the camera reveals to us the source of the sound a Briony types the closing words of her play. Throughout the first act of the play, this pattern is repeated: we see the results of an action before we see their causes-- the encounter at the fountain, one of the Quincy twins bouncing a ball against the wall, Robbie's picking the wrong letter to give to Cecilia. The film sets us up to say, "Okay, this is what really happened," but when we get to the end, we see that the entire thing-- even the supposed truth-- is a product of Briony's conscience, and imagination.

Similarly, the use that Wright makes of reflections-- in the lake while Cecilia, Leon, and Marshall are lounging, as well as in the Cecilia's mirror-- reminds us of films' roles as a reflection of life. There's this tradition in American and British films--a tradition that was definitely predominate during the thirties and forties-- that almost requires filmmakers to make everything plausible enough that the narrative moves along without the audience having to question it too much. In this respect, I think that the film definitely takes on and challenges this tradition: it makes us think about how films are constructed to look real.

I think that the same applies for the tracking shot at Dunkirk. While it pulls the audience out of the moment, I think it's important to recognize that this is a scene that needs to serve multiple purposes-- not only is it operating within the realm of the narrative, but it is also functioning as an act of remembering the historical past. By 2008, post-Vietnam and five years into the Iraq War, we have this heroic image of World War II (especially as its generation is aging and dying--a fact which is instrumental to our understanding of Briony in the third act); I think that it's important that the tracking shot reminds us that this is a recreation, a visual representation of history, and not the real thing. It's as much a version of the war as Briony's book is a version of the Robbie and Cecilia's romance. 



We all know that Robbie sees a plane for the first time in the film when he's in the bathtub. At that moment, he's excited about his life and his future. He's planning on studying medicine, he has just found out that he was in love with Cecilia...the plane represents his life soaring high, adventure, his future plans. He observes it almost in a childlike state, fascinated by it as much as he was fascinated with the possibilities of his own life.

The second time is during the war. The plane now represents destruction, hopelessness. It's interesting that, this time, altough Robbie looks up to the sky, we the audience can see only the reflection of the plane on the water, and it looks like a spectral shadow, a bad omen pairing over the soldiers.

The third time...well, this is what I found out recently, watching the film on a very bright LCD screen:
Robbie has just died and Nettle is leaving the basement. Briefly, almost invisible in the dark, we see the drawing of a plane on the wall, near Robbie's dead body. A childlike drawing, as if Robbie himself had projected with his mind his first impression of that plane, long ago, that meant his youth, his future and everything he would achieve in his life. Robbie's last moments were "the man returning to the child", like Joe Wright said in the commentary...

The little plane on the wall was his release from the tragic reality of his death. The imaginary plane that would take him away from Dunkirk and that dark basement-coffin, to the cottage on the beach, and to Cecilia.
by cris-a


One thing I noticed: when Briony tells the lie and everything goes black behind her the first thing we see after she has lied is her mother's perfectly manicured hand with blood red nails reach forward out of the darkness to place itself on her shoulder. This seemed to me to symbolize the complicity of the Tallis family with the evil that Briony does, not only their support of her and the way they close ranks with her against Robbie, but their complicity and culpability in the destruction of an innocent man. In particular it underscores the class issues and injustice underlying what is being done here; this beautifully manicured hand, representing the rich, superficially well-groomed Tallis family, has blood on it (symbolized by blood red nails and dress). Briony does not act alone, the adult members of this family are equally guilty because of their disregard for Robbie's humanity, classism, and casual cruelty.

Over and over we see that the superficial "perfection" of these people masks another reality entirely. Briony wears white dresses and bobbi socks but she is anything but pure; Lola in her pink ruffles is neither girlish nor innocent; Mrs. Tallis' hands, though perfectly manicured, are far from clean.

Robbie's hands, by contrast, are rough, with noticeably stubby fingernails, and Cee's get rougher especially after she leaves her family. Briony is seen scrubbing her hands frantically, obviously a symbolic reference to her efforts to cleanse herself of the blood she has shed.
by emakii

Also on the subject of hands and nails...wonderful insight about Emily's red finger nails (and red dress). I also noticed that when Cee is getting ready for dinner, she has red nail polish on. She looks briefly at her hands, says something to herself, and in the next scene (with Leon, before she gets the letter) the red nail polish is gone. Some people called it a continuity error, but when we think about it now...wasn't a way of telling us that Cee was starting a process to remove herself from the snobbery and cruelty of her upper class family?
Cee's fingernails painted in red appears briefly, when she's getting ready for dinner. It's interesting because she looks at her hand and says something, like she's questioning the nail polish.
But she uses the red lipstick during the whole film. It's like a "Cee trademark" - maybe something Briony remembered her sister wearing that caused an impact on her, maybe as how she finally started recognizing Cecilia as an adult (and sexually active) for the first time.

As he looks up at the wet Cecilia, his thumb is actually stroking the handle. So i take it that the handle is a phallus symbol. Overall a very sexualised scene.

Interesting, I went to see Atonement with a friend of mine (her first time watching it, mine was like the fourth) and she commented exactly the same thing. I had noticed it too, on my first viewing...the close-up of his hand, the tension, seemed to me a very sexualised moment.
And Wright used hands a lot in this film, to express what is not being said. When Robbie touches the water, it's like he's touching Cee for the first time. It's sexual, but it's not as lustful as he stroking the handle; it's more like he's acknowledging his love for her.
by cris-a

Sorry if i repeat anything but the use of color in the briony-as-a-nurse section of the film was important. she has no identity; her appearance blends in with the pale blues and whites of the hospital. the dying frenchman's red velvet curtain sticks out as a bright statement amongst the rest. at his side, briony learns about passion, and she learns to love, something which she states that she has never experienced before. this passion gives her her identity back, shown when she tells him her name is briony. and thus, afterwards she is able to wear her bright red nurse's outfit, something which asserts her identity by connecting her with the frenchman.
by eds-poofed-hair

I like your observations about the color scheme. I tend to think of the big red tent (for lack of a better word) that Luc was in as a kind of heart - this big shockingly colorful heart in the middle of all the drab arteries (hallways) of the hospital, where Briony goes to get her feelings and her identity back (I agree with you about the 'my name is Briony' being significant in her regaining herself, and I tend to pair it with her line 'There is no Briony' near the beginning of the hospital scenes when she's looking out the window at the city.)
by mikuhgtt

More about the colors...
It's interesting how the color scheme of the film changes, depending on what kind of emotions are being expressed. In the first part, the predominance is that of greens and pastel colors. There's  green everywhere: it's the color of the kitchen of the Tallises house, the gorgeous green grass, Robbie's and Grace's house (including the very greeny bathtube scene), and of course, Cecilia's wonderful green dress. The green is the symbol of that perfect summer day - when everything seemed to go so well, especially when we observe it through Robbie's POV. He was young, fresh and had his whole life ahead of him - a future life full of green, vibrant summers.
Of course, later on the first part, the black of the night takes over the green, casting its doom over the young lovers.

In the second part, the green is replaced by the browns and sepias. Life was very much taken away from Robbie, and he had to face the cruel reality of a war. Despite the sadness and lack of vivid colors, the use of browns and tans is amazingly beautiful.  For example, observing the tearoom scene, and the scene at the bus stop, we'll notice that even the people around Cee and Robbie are wearing brownish clothes. There's the eventual use of bright colors to give the scenes an interesting contrast, as the blue in the tearoom scene (Robbie's eyes, Cecilia's uniform) and the red during the bus stop scene (the double-decker buses).

In the third part, we get the white and red, symbolizing the contrast between purity and the horrible crime commited by Briony. Briony's uniform is white, but there's a red cross in it, as if to signalize her guilt. There's red in the blood of wounded soldiers. Red are also the curtains around the dying French soldier's bed, an interesting reminder of the theaters' curtains, pointing to Briony's unability to live outside the fictional world inside her head.

A wonderful way of expressing sentiments through colors, in a film which was never praised enough for the beautiful and intelligent use of symbologies in all levels. 


When robbie goes to pick up Nettles boot just before he sees all the dead bodys, he takes off his hat and lifts his head to the sky with his eyes closed, when he looks up the screen brightens dramtically and his face looks like the sun is shining just on him, then he lowers his head and opens his eyes and the screen darkens like the sun has dissapeared, its almost like when he has his eyes closed and looks to the sky he is in heaven in the light and when he opens his eyes again and looks to the ground he is in the reality.
by oxmilliexo

When Briony is trying to reconcile with her sister (the part of the story she creates to bring Robbie and Cecilia back together) as they kiss, she turns to the window and sees an old woman pushing a small pram. Is this to be taken as some kind of premonition into her future? While her sister and Robbie are given a future of love and happiness (albeit a fictionalised one), hers is to be one of loneliness and madness because of her own actions?
by xtenement_funsterx

The film is loaded with foreshadowing - the picture on the wall near the door in the Turner bungalow, the picture above where Briony is typing in the opening shot, Briony's reading in the field, etc. - and I've always looked at the shot you mention as another example of that. Briony seeing herself far in the future - an old lady bent by a life of carrying the burden of guilt from what her lies did to Robbie and Cecilia.
 by mikuhgtt

I don't know whether this was mentioned but water can also be associated with refraction, the way in which what we see gets distorted by our perception. Which I would link with the glass window when Briony is watching the scene by the fountain...there is a moment where the image is refracted by the glass while she's opening the window.
Also what do you think is the symbolism of the trapped insect, when she's watching Robbie and Cee?
by ophelia83

There's also refraction when Cecilia is lying on the diving board over the lake, and we see her reflex distorted by the water. I like the idea of things being distorted by perception; it is one of the main themes of the story, after all. Like the "You can only imagine the truth" tag that they used for the film, so much better and intriguing than the other one ("Joined by love. Separated by fear. Redeemed by hope" - never liked this one...).

Joe Wright said that he used the bee because its buzz is like a buzz inside the brain, irritating you, making you confused about things...but I also like the imagery of something trapped, as in Briony trapped by her own imagination.
by cris-a