I’m a bit undecided as to where the opening ends, but I like to think of Dario Marianelli’s impressive score as a guide. So, I’ll stop the scene when he does.
I vaguely remember that back in 2007 when Atonement was to come out it was being touted as the next best romantic feature and there was a trailer released with Lifehouse’s “You and Me” playing over scenes from the film. I happen to love that song, but it’s such an odd concept because Atonement is such an odd film that it sort of defies genre-identification. It’s as much a class drama as it is a love story, as it is a war film, and so on. And, to add to the confusion Cecilia – our de factor lead (but, not really) is not who we open the film with. It’s Briony Tallis’ writing which we open with, but before we even get to Briony we have a shot of the Tallis house…sort of…
This shot of the model of the house with Briony’s “toys” is such a peculiar one to take.
And speaking of eyes...
The motif of Briony’s eyes in the film is such an important one. She’s the character tying the strands of the narrative together; it’s the things she sees which send the story hurtling into the direction it does.
We’re less than a minute into the film and what have we learned already? Briony is staggeringly meticulous for an adolescent. I’ll wager that vocally, perhaps, Saoirse’s performance is not an eight world wonder but her expressions and physicality are most impressive.
Herein lays one of the fine things about Atonement. Another director might have followed Briony closely, amidst a gamut of tight shots, as she traversed through the house, but by having the camera at such a distance from her not only do we notice how almost militant she seems, we get to take in the lavish Tallis house.
The quickness with which the camera moves adds to the urgency, although we don’t know what that urgency represents.
Briony: “I finished my play.”
I can’t overstate the importance of Grace Turner here. Brenda Blethyn is such a brilliant actor, and the Turner/Tallis hierarchy only underscores the density of the class issues. Grace’s almost maternal attitude to Briony, which is betrayed half a day later.
Grace: “Well, then.”
Briony: “Have you seen mommy?”
Grace: “She’ll be in the drawing room, I expect.”
Cook: “I hope you won’t be getting in our way today, Miss Briony. We’ve got a big dinner to prepare.”
And, more trekking...
Robbie: “Hello, pal. I hear you’re putting on a play.”
Briony: “Who told you?”She looks so wistful in that first shot, there. Despite the ostensible iniquity of her imminent actions, Briony is really just a girl and it’s in these registers that I love Saoirse’s performance the most.
Robbie: “Jungle drums.”
Briony: “Will you come and see it?”
Isn’t it amusing how in that first shot she seems as if she’s actually considering the reality of those tell-tale jungle drums? She’s too young to be coquettish, but Briony’s physical behaviour in this season is just perfect. I don’t know how Saoirse manages to exude that bashfulness that comes with a childhood crush, along with a strange sort of maturity – but she does it beautifully.
Robbie: “I’m not sure that would be quite-”
Yet another line in the opening filled with gravity (we’re now about two minutes in). Why wouldn’t it be “quite –” for him to come to Briony’s play? I think a good opening should set up a slew of potential avenues for its story to take, without making the eventual one seem illogical. I’ll credit Hampton with one of the finest screenplays of the eighties (Dangerous Liaisons) and his condensation of the novel is tremendous.
Robbie: “Why don’t you let me read it? You used to make beautiful bound copies of all your stories. I kept them all.”
Another little good thing about the opening, with the short moment with Grace earlier and this one Hampton and Wright manage to give us a flashback with hoaky dialogue or actual flashbacks. The fact that the Turners and the Tallis’ were so close isn’t unimportant, but it’s not thrust into the narrative in an awkward manner.
Briony: “I still want you to come.”
Robbie: “Let’s see...”
Briony: “I have to go now.”
I guess she remembers why she left her room in the first place...
Briony: “Mommy, I need you.”
You can’t expect me to write a post on Atonement without some fastidious overreaching search for subtext. I’ve always wondered at that line, “Mommy, I need you.” The Tallis parents in Atonement are almost absent. We never see Mr. Tallis and we only see a few short scenes with Mrs. Tallis – reading the play immediately after this, lying tiredly listening to the cousins, her snobbish quasi-monologue at dinner and Robbie’s arrest. Sure, it’s one day, but she doesn’t seem like the ideal mother and I love that it’s Briony who had the line. With all her conflicting feelings, I’d say definitely needs “mommy”.
Mrs. Tallis: “Stupendous, it’s stupendous darling – your first play.”
Briony: “Do you think so? Do you think Leon will like it?”
Mrs. Tallis: “Well, of course he will. The Trials of Arabella, by Briony Tallis.”
I hate to finish the opening without touching on Cecilia’s first scene (which comes almost immediately after this), Keira’s so lovely here. But, I wager that those two and a half minutes are the actual opening. Because it opens with the Tallis house, and ends with it.
What do you think of Atonement’s opening? Are you even convinced that the opening ends here?