Sunday, February 17, 2008



This cinemagraphic pleasure is nominated for seven Oscars including best picture, best supporting actress (13 year-old Saoirse Ronan, who plays young Briony), best cinematography, and best adapted (from Ian McEvan's novel) screenplay. Directed by Joe Wright, it won the Golden Globe 2007 for best picture, and Kiera Knightly garnered the Globe for best actress. Freudians won't be able to avoid conflating Briony's girlhood crush on Robbie (James McAvoy), the housekeeper's son, and her witness of her older sister Cecilia's (Kiera Knightley) sexual relationship with him, with an oedipal triangle.

Briony, as a much older woman (Vanessa Redgrave), has written her last novel: about those long ago, family events, but conceived with a happier ending in order to give back, in fiction, what she had stolen from the lovers in real life. This happier, fictional spin is how many patients arrive in our offices, and the therapeutic work becomes its antithesis. Therapeutic work is not to justify some truth to childhood unhappiness, but rather to bring to light the fiction (erroneous beliefs) that is a child's explanation of events (written with a child's limited experience, cognitive maturity, and perspective) which amplify unhappy experience. It is to rework the narrative into a more realistic, more forgiving one. The grown up Briony entitles her novel "Atonement" precisely because she feels guilty. While she may, as a child, have known Robbie was no rapist, or may have conflated the coitus in the library with the rape on the grounds, she comes to realize her mistake. What may have been harder for her to forgive in herself was that her crush on Robbie motivated her vengeance. It doesn't take Freud to figure out that Briony (and Cecilia) devote themselves as nurses to wounded soldiers, both to be closer to Robbie away in the war, and also, for Briony, to assauge her guilt.

Where A.O. Smith of the New York Times writes of "the film's failure to find a strong connection between the fates of the characters and the ideas and historical events that swirl around them," I see this "failure" as an accurate depiction of how historical events, for most of us, are overshadowed by the emotional primacy, particular to our personal relationships, which lives in the human psyche. This film is worth seeing for it's richness in scenes and psyche, but it is not my pick for best pic.

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