I don't write many movie reviews. (As I've indicated before, I see quite a few movies these days -- new releases in theaters and not-so-new at home, through the satisfying service of NetFlix.) I'm not equipped to analyze movies, nor do I see theological themes under every credit. (Yes: I know that all of the cosmos is theological. I would have to push, however, to draw out the theology or the theological problematic in "Michael Clayton" -- no matter how ethereal I think Tilda Swinton is!) But once in a while, a movie requires attention from a theological perspective -- usually when it doesn't want to be analyzed that way.
Such is the new movie, "Atonement," which friend Brad and I saw on the "big screen" last night. And I recommend it. (I have some personal reservations, I guess, but they relate more to how I match up a movie with the book on which it's based. In this case, I think I'd have enjoyed the movie more had I not already read the book.) It's a troubling movie. But it is troubling in a very good, Christian sense (even though neither the book nor the movie, so far as I can discern, makes any religious claim or pretense.)
The movie is a study in perplexity or ambiguity: Is perception reality? Is there a "reality" that exists behind what we see and convince ourselves we see, whether we understand it or not? What is real? Can mistakes -- willful or accidental -- be "atoned" for or the consequences undone? Who dies and who doesn't die? What is autobiograpical fiction (which only comes as a question at the end of the movie)? Can James McAvoy shed his identification as Tumnus, the Faun in the first Narnia movie (something which was a little problematic for me, even though I've seen him in other things since then, but it's apparently not a problem for many people, since he's getting pretty solid reviews).
To be honest, Mr. McAvoy's performance is really moving and believable (at times, annoyingly so). Kiera Knightley is gorgeous and probably right for the part (though I'm not a great fan of hers, this was a pretty good performance). Saoirse Ronan is spookily effective as the little b... -- er, -- brat who precipitates so much pain for so many. (The somewhat-older Nurse Briony is less appealing, even though the characterization seemed pretty consistent.) And the ever-phenomenal Vanessa Redgrave is a most convincing old-age Saoirse/Briony -- in looks and manner. So casting works very well. (There is a most annoying musical theme that features an ancient typewriter -- which made me think of the more entertaining LeRoy Anderson band piece,
The Typewriter -- which was only hamfisted and not effective. Thankfully, it is gone by the end.)
The movie has to contend with point of view issues, crucial to the novel, and it does so by re-play -- not flashback: It sets out a scene involving Briony's seeing and interpreting something, and then it goes back in time to play the scene out in a supposedly objective, third-person view (what "really happened"). For some reason I found that irritating; I kept thinking, "I wish they'd get on with it." But, of course, that is what is to be gotten on with. And while I knew that intellectually, I couldn't relax and get into the early part of the movie.
Still, I encourage people to see the movie and to reflect on the Christian themes that resonate through it. I'm not sure about the religious orientation or conviction of the author of the book, Ian McEwen, and I really don't care. But the movie (for me, more so than the book did) concentrates questions about "atonement" that are worth considering.
I think the movie sets up these questions, inter alia, which may be good for Christians to ponder especially during this season of Advent, that mixture of looking back to the Great Atonement and looking forward (not to "Christmas" -- which is in the past -- but) to the final Denouement: What is atonement? Is it restitution (as it portrayed in some Christian theology)? If restitution, can it ever happen -- except in some kind of abstract and forensic way? Is forgiveness (from the one wronged or from ouselves for the "evil we have done") the same as atonement? Can the "sinner" atone for her sin and to the ones sinned against? (The movie answers this in a most scintillating yes-no way, and in the process doesn't answer the question -- which is the major interest I find in the movie.) If we parse the word as AT-ONE-ment, mustn't we acknowledge that atonement can come (or at least must initiate) from the side of the one/s wronged? Doesn't it require the desire/intent of both "sides" to achieve at-one-ment?
When I think about it, this wasn't a bad way to spend the last Thursday in Advent.