Reprinted from EXPLORING THE MEDIA
Ed Barbara Connell
Mainstream narratives usually aim to help audiences suspend disbelief. Suspending disbelief means that we deliberately forget that a media text is a fictional representation and treat it as real, at least for the time we are watching it, thus enabling audiences to cry at the end of Titanic and be shocked by the violence in Hostel. Since the early days of film, Hollywood studios have aimed to provide this escapism for audiences by using simple, linear narrative structures where the audience is positioned with a hero who is attempting to complete one, clearly-defined, quest. As a result many approaches to studying film focus on identifying this narrative formula in individual films by dividing them into stages (equilibrium, disruption, etc.) or recognising character functions (hero, villain, princess, etc.). This process can be a useful starting point for understanding how stories are told. However some films have different, more complex narratives for which this type of analysis may be less effective. Atonement is a film in which the audience is not supposed to suspend disbelief, rather the narrative demands that the audience thinks about how we interpret and gain fulfilment from this and other stories.
The narrative structure depends on recognising that all stories – whether films, novels or plays like the young Briony’s The Trials of Arabella with which the film opens – are subjective and reflect individuals’ perceptions. The narrative of Atonement is constructed so that it is clear that there are different, conflicting versions of reality. This means the audience does not completely suspend its disbelief but is encouraged to question the reality of the story, This is done by undermining the audience’s trust in the narrator, Briony.
Atonement’s narrative follows Briony throughout her life towards her attempt at a final atonement for the lives she destroyed with her ‘stories’ and her biggest lie (‘Isaw him’), which deprived her sister and her friend of a ‘happy ever after’ ending to their life story. The narrative effectively juxtaposes several points of view – including significant strands focused on the young Briony, Robbie, the adult Briony and the dying older Briony. Although the film doesn’t draw attention to it, the narrative unfolds in three main sections representing each of those points of view with a final short section reflecting the dying Briony’s point of view, one which questions all that has preceded it. This manipulation of narrative has been a feature of several contemporary films and arguably informs much contemporary culture, Such films as Short Cuts (Robert Altman, US, 1993). Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, US, 1994), Crash (Paul Haggis, US/Germany, 2004) and Lucky Number Slevin ( all serve to remind us that there is no single authoritative version of any event, of any story.
Atonement is partially about the guilt which arises from a lie and its consequences but the film also explores the logic of recognising that all perceptions of reality are just that – perceptions, This is first made clear to the audience by showing the same scene – by the fountain – from two different points of view. Briony’s version of what happens when Cecilia and Robbie meet at the fountain and the vase is broken is shown to be misleading once the audience is positioned with the two characters involved in the exchange and are thus able to hear their conversation and read their body language. The change in perspective alters audiences’ perceptions – although, as the film progresses, audiences’ perceptions are similarly called into question as well.
At the start of the two versions of this fountain sequence, the sound of a bee, which audiences see in close up as it lands on a window pane, attracts Briony’s attention. The shallow depth of focus on the bee, is pulled to allow the full depth of field, which reveals Cecilia and’ Robbie outside standing at the fountain in the garden below. Briony, and the audience, cannot hear what is going on and are reliant on actions and body language seen only in an extreme long shot. From her limited perspective, she misundersiands the situation, She gasps first at Cecilia undressing in front of Robbie and turns away shocked. When she looks again, she gasps once more on seeing Cecilia’s near nudity as she emerges wet from the fountain’s pool. Briony senses that what she has witnessed is sexual in some way, but jumps to the conclusion, prompted by her own jealousy and other misunderstandings, that Robbie somehow made her do it.
The sequence is then replayed from Cecilia’s perspective, Cecilia takes the vase and flowers outside and speaks with Robbie. The relationship between them is hinted at through their brief and tense exchanges, emotions revealed through pauses and glances, by the unspoken, Using medium close-ups and detail shots allows the audience to better understand the nature of their relationship, understanding denied to Briony. As Cecilia emerges from the fountain the frisson of attraction between the two characters is palpable and essential in motivating their strand of the narrative. It is also Briony’s inability to comprehend her sister’s relationship which motivates her to lie and thus begin the sequence of events within the narrative.
The film then continues with a distinct narrative strand, almost like a new chapter, in which four years have passed and Robbie is fighting in the Second World War. This strand is perhaps the most conventional in that we have a hero, Robbie, with a quest to return home to Cecelia who he loves. The ending of this strand is enigmatic, our hero is stranded at the beach in Dunkirk and the audienceis uncertain as to whether he will die or be rescued. It is only when we reach the final section of the film, an interview with Briony, now an elderly novelist, that we discover that Robbie did indeed die at Dunkirk.
The audience is informed by Briony that the previous scenes in which she visited Robbie and Cecilia living together in South London to apologise and attempt to atone for the lie she told are actually fictional. This means that the audience has been watching a chapter from her novel rather than an honest account of events. The scene could not have happened because Robbie never returned, Cecilia was also killed and obviously this means that there was no atonement for Briony. The elderly Briony explains that she changed the story because “what sense of hope, or satisfaction could a reader derive from an ending like that…”
Atonement has a highly complex narrative structure: it is non-linear; events are represented from different characters’ points of view and a distinction is made between the true story and Briony’s version of it, but this is only made clear to audiences after they have watched this strand. All these factors encourage the audience to actively question the film rather than simply suspending disbelief. Atonement also forces the audience to think about the purpose and pleasure of fiction compared with real life experience. The film audience is given a traditional happy ending but this lacks the same satisfaction as it has learnt previously that this is fantasy.