Upon Second Viewing: Atonement

One argument I have had with one of the writers on this blog — Jon — concerns the importance of the second viewing of a movie. For Jon, a movie has the responsibility to hold up upon second viewing. This season, I know “Michael Clayton” and “There Will Be Blood” rose up Jon’s rankings upon second viewing, and thankfully, “No Country for Old Men” suffered. To Jon, I believe, great movies have to resonate after they have already failed or succeeded in the Visceral Resonation Test.

I disagree. For me, the first viewing is quintessential in my review of the movie, and very rarely will my opinion change. I’ll give you an example: by this point, I’ve seen “Syriana” about 3-4 times. The first time I saw it, I didn’t know what was going on, or more importantly, what people saw in the movie. In my re-watches, the point of the movie has become a little more clear. But, to me, that doesn’t change that the movie is a convoluted piece of shit.

Generally speaking, people will watch a movie one time. A movie has one opportunity to strike the viewer with its message, to leave them talking and thinking about it after they’ve left the theater. However, despite railing the importance of second viewings, I do believe I owe my favorite movies the responsibility of supporting them. I absolutely loved four movies in 2007: Juno, There Will Be Blood, Into the Wild and Atonement. I will buy all of them, I will re-watch them once, twice, a dozen times, and I will write about my changed experience here.

However, don’t read below the fold if you haven’t seen the movie. I will be talking about the end of each movie I review in detail, and I’d hate to spoil the movie for anyone.


I was the only member of WHAP that enjoyed “Atonement”. For me, the movie had the best ending of 2007. It was the best adapted screenplay for me for that reason. I walked out of the theater more shocked than I had been since “The Departed”. I also, for what it’s worth, walked out proclaiming it the best unrequited love story of the decade. I’m still waiting for someone to propose a challenger to that title.

Some called the ending gimmicky, I think Brett did at this blog. To an extent, I did see where they were coming from. But, after the first viewing, what others called gimmicky, I called self-aware. For me, it wasn’t the ending of the movie that generated an emotional hollowness by itself. It was the ending of the movie juxtaposed with the scene just 5-10 minutes before when Briony confronts Cecilia and is confronted by Robbie.

I called that the scene of the year. If you ask me, I think that scene is probably what landed James McAvoy on Time’s Oscar Roundtable. That scene is so heated, so emotional that the effect of Vanessa Redgrave’s confession left me gasping. I thought that Christopher Hampton and Joe Wright — and before that, Ian McEwan — knew what would happen, and understood how the sequence of events would leave the viewer. For that reason, I have called it self-aware.

But if the second viewing of this movie did anything for me, I would now completely reject the notion of a gimmicky ending. Vanessa Redgrave isn’t there merely to pull the rug out from under us, even if she does that in the process. The presence of an aged Briony does two things I’m not sure I realized the first time: it completes the Briony character, first of all, and secondly, it proposes a moral question…

“Atonement”, in this movie, is the name of Briony Tallis’ 21st and final novel. Atonement, by the way, is most easily defined as “compensation for a wrong.” In Briony’s mind, and as she tells us, she sees giving Cecilia and Robbie their happiness as her atonement, her compensation. But we also know that it isn’t true, that both Robbie and Cecilia died in 1940, and that Briony never made the trip to her sister’s apartment. So therefore, the movie is asking us which would you rather have: Briony Tallis’ version — in which Cecilia and Robbie are given their happiness — or the truth, in which they die.

In the scene I have already pronounced as the scene of the year, Robbie tells Briony to write down exactly what happened, with “no adjectives, no embellishments.” This is, since that scene never happened, a construction of Briony’s. I wonder why she creates that moment, that proclamation by Robbie, in the midst of an embellishment?

“Atonement” is a movie, if nothing else, about honesty. The last scene, the scene that so many have a problem with, is the climax of the movie’s bout with honesty: choose, it asks us, between happy ending and the truth. It also gives us little choice but to choose truth — like “Gone Baby Gone” gives us little choice on its moral question — and we’re grateful for it.

The truth is better than fiction is hardly a moral stance worth constructing a movie around. But wrapping it around the ultimate tale of unrequited love, building it as a period piece, and ultimately confronting us closer than most movies dare is what makes this movie one of the year’s best. And I’ll tell you this: even when I knew Vanessa Redgrave was coming, nothing in the movie lost its beauty or horror.

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3 Responses to Upon Second Viewing: Atonement

  1. saudade says:

    “If you ask me, I think that scene is probably what landed James McAvoy on Time’s Oscar Roundtable.”

    Agreed. I’ve watched that scene over and over on Gootube and every time I wonder why McAvoy wasn’t nominated.

    Excellent review. I had problems with the final scene of the film, feeling like it bordered on overkill, but your assessment is so obvious and right. Cheers.

  2. […] Second Viewing: Jon’s Top 5 Since Bryan posted earlier today on the irrelevance of seeing a movie a second time, I feel obligated to defend my […]

  3. patrick says:

    Atonement looked and felt a lot like Pride and Prejudice, impeccable setting, acting and dialogue. i wonder if Briony’s vocabulary is realistic for an British young person? it wouldnt surprise me… A bit depressing toward the end, but over all very well done.

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