I am, sadly, too late to properly play along with this week’s Hit Me with Your Best Shot, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to throw an entry out there just for fun. Particularly coming hot on the heels of a maddeningly long posting drought, for which I do apologise, dear readers, and I’ll try to come back with some actual reviews sooner rather than later.
In the meanwhile, though, let’s attend to the matter at hand: the 2007 film Atonement, a polished and posh Best Picture nominee that I’ve really not thought about much in the last eight years, but I remember only vaguely liking. Turns out I still do – director Joe Wright entire filmography, I think, is haunted by an overly-stuffy, overly-bookish approach to telling stories; he makes enormously literate films at the expense, sometimes, of making living, breathing cinematic films. And this tendency is at its most present and draining in Atonement.
That being said, the film looks gorgeous in every last detail, including what could be rationally defended as the single most perfect piece of movie costuming of the 2010s, the green dress that Jacqueline Durran designed for Keira Knightley to wear during the most epochal and dramatic stretch of scenes in the film. It was a fair bet that the dress would end up at the center of whatever image I picked as my favorite shot, irrespective of any other consideration, and low and behold
There’s more going on here than just the dress of course – much more. This was one of the handful of images I remembered more or less perfectly from my first and only prior viewing of the film in the fall of 2007, in part because of how much it packs in. It’s a key moment in the narrative, to start with: this is the point at which little Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan, in what remains one of the greatest child performances of recent vintage) starts to become aware of the emotional costs of her actions up to that point in the film. Having told a lie – perhaps innocently, perhaps because she’d had all kinds of feelings of betrayal and sexual ardor stirred up that she didn’t know what to do with, and lying gave her a way to tamp all of that down – Briony has set in motion the actions that separate her elder sister Cecilia (Knightley) from her lover Robbie (James McAvoy). In this moment, staring down from her bedroom, Briony has just seen Robbie taken away from the police, leaving Cecilia and her enormously long shadow alone in a solitary patch of light, surrounded by darkness. You couldn’t do for a more effectively straightforward visual depiction of loneliness.
That’s half of it, anyway. The other half is all in the framing. This is almost, but barely not quite, a direct POV shot from Briony’s perspective; the only reason we know that it’s not is because we can see the very indistinct shape of her head at the left side of the frame. And also that fuzzy stripe running more or less down the middle of the frame? That’s part of Briony’s window. In fact, three sides of the shot are boxed in by the view over Briony’s shoulder (it’s easier to see it in motion). And here we arrive at one of the key themes of Atonement, particularly in its first segment: voyeurism. This is very much a film about watching other people for emotional stimulation: most explicitly so in the sequence that finds Briony spying at Cecilia and Robbie having sex against a pair of bookshelves. But the sensation of looking permeates everything: Briony, an aspiring writer, is a character defined in terms of how she looks at things and how accurately or not she interprets them.
And we can take it even a little deeper than that: Atonement, I’ve mentioned, is a lusciously appointed film. It is, in no small part, about the pleasures we get, in the audience, from looking and watching and observing. That’s what makes this scene and many others play in a nastily ironic way, though I hadn’t thought about in those terms till later. Cecilia has been walloped emotionally, and we’re watching her, getting aesthetic pleasure from seeing a fictional character suffering; we’re getting a more direct sensory pleasure from the sharp colors of that green dress. Briony isn’t the only semi-predatory voyeuristic POV that Atonement is aware of, and implicitly critiquing, as it turns out.