When Atonement came out in 2007, it was a good fit for my pretentious obsession with movies. It's about storytelling, about the power and danger of creating narratives out of fragments (or out of nothing), and it's also very well-made in a way that's just a little bit showy. The score incorporates the clack of typewriter keys, the rhythmic editing draws attention to perception and perspective, and there's one long take that's so stunning, it's distracting.
But rewatching it now, all I could see was that the movie is about the cruel and wasteful loss caused by war.
What I had remembered most was the first segment of the movie, in which the characters lounge and luxuriate in sexual tension, and in which a young girl's misunderstandings and spite set a horrible course in motion. But no matter what that young girl had seen or said, the war was coming — an airplane flies ominously overhead; a sleazy chocolate magnate brags over cocktails that his candy bars will be in all the soldiers' ration packs. The middle section of the movie, which takes place during the war, is split into two parts, both of which feature sequences of chaotic, unfathomable violence as well as shots of soldiers singing and smiling, full of energy. In the stretch of the movie focusing on 18-year-old Briony's time as a nurse in a London hospital, she visits at the bedside of a wounded French soldier and watches him die. Immediately afterward, the movie cuts to newsreel footage of soldiers cheering, laughing, joking, throwing arms roughly around one another's necks as if they're going to live forever.
In the last moments of the movie, we learn that both Robbie and Cecelia, whose relationship was thwarted by Briony's false accusation, were killed in the war. The final shots are a painful fantasy of something that never could have happened: the two of them running and frolicking blissfully on the beach, the white cliffs of Dover in the background. Those cliffs are a symbol of Britain and were a welcoming sight for soldiers evacuating from Dunkirk; the devastation at Dunkirk forms the centerpiece of the wartime section of the movie. That image of the cliffs makes clear what I didn't realize when I watched Atonement back in 2007: Robbie and Cecelia's lost young love represents all of the promising lives and relationships lost to war, both in combat and in the London blitz. This time, the movie felt like an elegy for a whole generation, for any generation decimated by violence.