Sunday, June 20, 2010

Don't Make a Scene (or Two): Atonement

A few weeks ago, I noticed that fellow movie-blogger Andrew Kendall of the prestigious "Encore's World of Film and TV" (and who has kindly graced us with his comments on a number of occasions), ALSO analyzes a particular film scene on Sundays.  I dropped him a line and said, "We should collaborate on one," to which he quickly replied, yes.  The one he wanted to do?  "The fountain scene from 'Atonement.'"

Perfect choice.  Andrew is an expert on all things rich, wise and romantic in the cinema (you are reading him, yes?), and this scene is all of that, and so much more.

We wrote back and forth, hemmed and hawed, debated formats and collaborative processes (and I took too many screen-caps, but the expressions!—one has to catch the expressions!), and we decided, rather than publish the same thing twice, "you do the sound and the dialog, I'll do the visuals."  That would cover this complex scene.  We were to start with the first line of dialog, but I thought, to give it a sense of completion (and "up" that pic count) we should begin and end on the two bracketing shots of Brionny opening the window to release a trapped bee: the first after she has seen another angle on this scene, from Brionny's point-of-view, played out, silently, from afar, and the second—after this scene.  Is it real or is it imagined?  That's the beauty of "Atonement;"  we'll never really know.  It is all subject to the writerly instincts, tending toward melodrama, in the mind of Brionny.  That shot of her staring at us foreshadows many similar shots of her throughout her life, right up to the end (when we are addressed by her, as portrayed by the brilliant Vanessa Redgrave).

Here's Andrew's analysis:  

Here's mine.  The scene involves Cecilia and Robbie, two star-crossed but culture-clashed lovers.

But the scene is Brionny's.

The Story:  This is a Love Scene.  But it is also a Hate Scene.

It's probably writers' bad luck to invoke the same line twice in one week, but I'll risk the consequences as this scene is such a perfect example: "The opposite of Love is not Hate; The opposite of Love is indifference.  Love and Hate are just two sides of the same coin."

"I'm so stupid," she will say later. "It was there for weeks and I didn't know it.  But you did."  Yes, and he's had to endure her standing in the Twilight Zone at the cross-roads of emotion and hormones, when you're feeling something undefinable and resisting it (or fighting it) before conceding that, yes, you have some control over me, and no, I don't like it, but aw, what the hell, let's dance.

Stanley Kubrick once said that a screenplay is the least communicative form of expression there is, and Christopher Hampton's distillation of Ian McEwan's novel is a prime example of that statement, as cleverly as it portrays McEwan's intentions.  Looking at the screenplay, you can see where director Wright adjusted timings, shifted locations, moved Robbie and Cecilia, and where actors Knightley and McAvoy have read between the lines, and provided a wealth of material that turns words on the written page to living, breathing (and blushing) celluloid.  The expressions here are exquisite: yearning, unsure, shy, haughty, embarrassed, "jittery" (author McEwan's word), cheekily amused, churlish, defiant, and downright pissy.  And also, a bit of the chivalrous.

We don't know much about them, at this point in the film, this scene tells us more than we know already.  Cecilia is born to a well-to-do family, Robbie is a servant's son, who is gone off to college on the master's dole, and now is back, doing the gardening.  We've seen his affection for Cecilia in his eyes as he's observed she and her sister Brionny lying in the grass while he worked, and we've heard Brionny's concern that "Celia" doesn't pay much attention to Robbie.  "We just don't run in the same circles anymore" will be Cecilia's bored reply.  Not for want of trying. though.  Here, at one point Robbie circles the haughty Cecilia (somewhat unnecessarily going down to the fountain to fill a vase), like a bee circles a lovely flower.  Unsure, a bit out of her depth, she will avoid him, and make up an excuse to cross paths with him.

With merely that knowledge in mind, we start the scene, with Cecilia, restless, running through the woods, having picked flowers for her brother's visit (with his well-to-do guest). She hasn't asked the gardener (Robbie) to do it.  Pointedly so.  She is avoiding talking to him, after getting wind of him possibly leaving the estate again to attend medical school...for six long years.  And she resents it.  She's a privileged, spoiled, entitled girl used to getting her way, and Robbie's considering going away.  Again.  And she wants to have her cake and ignore it, too.  

But, there's none of that in the screenplay's words.  The moment when Cecilia emerges from the water isn't even dealt with in the script, and barely in McEwan's book, describing Cecilia's appearance as "a frail white nymph" and Robbie's sense that "he knew better than to help her out of the water."

But in the scene, the moment is "the lightning bolt," as they say in "The Godfather."  They stand there, paralyzed for a moment, unsure of their next moves, considering their positions, and Robbie, dropping the over-compensating "superior" attitude, chivalrously (and I'm sure, reluctantly) looks away to allow her some privacy in dressing.

And for Cecilia?  It's a break in the storm.  She's been on the down-side of this little power struggle since the beginning:  first, with her frail "check-me-out" at the mirror, her not so subtle opening joust for a cigarette (if you've watched Howard Hawks movies, that's a smoke signal that she's weak and in need), and her embarrassment in using the word "passionate."  "This isn't going well.  Not at all."

And she's mad.  Mad as hornets.  Mad at him for considering going away again.  Mad at his smug superior attitude (the gardener!).  Mad that he thinks all she's concerned about is the money.  Mad that he won't leave well enough alone, and now, (now!) he's broken the bloody vase...and laughing about it! 

Oooooh, how she hates him (heh).  So, she will be damned if she'll let him get the broken vase shards out of the fountain.  She's going to do it and put him in his place.  Here's how McEwan describes it:

Denying his help, any possibility of making amends, was his punishment.  The unexpectedly freezing water that caused her to gasp was his punishment.  She held her breath, and sank, leaving her hair fanned out across the surface.  Drowning herself would be his punishment.  (Atonement, p. 29)


Wonderful, that.  She's going to punish him by punishing herself.  Talk about your conflicting emotions.  Her high dudgeon will remain until she's more sure of her position (and his) on their mutual feelings.  But for now, leave bad enough alone. (Why, she's even mad that he's not looking at her as she's getting dressed!).  This restlessness, this conflict—in both Cecilia and Brionny—is accompanied by Dario Marianelli's Oscar-winning score, so well-integrated with the visuals (including a theme for Brionny that includes type-writer hammers).  Over the scenes of Cecilia running through the forest, her agitation is communicated by a kinetic but emotionally neutral section that is ended—actually snapped—by Cecilia's nervous catch of a piano string.**

Robbie's gesture to still the agitated waters in the fountain, will presage his next actions, that combined with Brionny's too-imaginative observance, will shape the arc of the entire movie.

The Set-Up:  It's a day of heat and import at the Tallis manse.  College-son Leon is coming for a visit (with a millionaire!), and the Tallis' are playing host to the off-spring of their financially strapped relatives.  For the occasion young Brionny Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) has written a melodrama, but her most lasting work is yet to come.




CECILIA, with an armful of wild flowers, runs through the woods, enjoying the sheer exhilaration of movement. There isn’t a cloud in the sky.


CLOSE on BRIONY, seen through the window,staring out.



CECILIA runs on through the woods.


CECILIA crosses the hall, as the TWINS come clattering and shouting down the stairs.

JACKSON Can we go for a swim please, Cecilia?

CECILIA I don’t see why not, as long as you don’t go near the deep end.*

And the TWINS rush away as CECILIA steps into the drawing room.



CECILIA crosses to the window. Outside, ROBBIE is standing rolling himself a cigarette.

CECILIA goes over to a cherry-wood table, where there’s an early 18th-century Meissen vase. She drops the flowers untidily into it and pulls out a crushed packet of cigarettes, which turns out to be empty.

She glances back out of the window...

...picks up the vase, checks her reflection in the mirror and strides out towards the terrace.


...CECILIA speaks a little sharply, startling ROBBIE.

CECILIA Can you do me one of your Bolshevik roll-ups?

She doesn’t stop; and he follows her, making the cigarette as she heads across the lawn towards the fountain.

CECILIA Beautiful day.
ROBBIE I suppose so. Too hot for me.

They move on in silence.

ROBBIE How are you enjoying your book?
CECILIA Not at all.
ROBBIE It gets better.

CECILIA I’d rather read Fielding any day.

CECILIA Much more... passionate.

CECILIA suddenly feels awkward and hastens to change the subject.

CECILIA Leon’s coming down today, did you know?

ROBBIE I’d heard a rumour.
CECILIA He’s bringing a friend with him.

CECILIA This Paul Marshall. The chocolate millionaire.
ROBBIE Are the flowers for him?

CECILIA Why shouldn’t they be? Leon says he’s very charming.

They reach the fountain: CECILIA puts the vase down on the top step leading up to it. ROBBIE hands her the cigarette and lights it. They obviously know one another very well; yet there’s some definite, perceptible constraint between them. There’s more than a hint of accusation in what CECILIA says next.

CECILIA The Old Man telephoned last night. He says you’re planning to be a doctor.
ROBBIE I’m thinking about it, yes.
CECILIA Another six years of student life?
ROBBIE How else do you become a doctor?

CECILIA You could get a Fellowship now, couldn’t you?
ROBBIE But I don’t want to teach...

CECILIA With your First.

He breaks off, looks away for a moment; then turns back to her.

ROBBIE I said I’d pay your father back.

CECILIA That’s not what I meant at all.

There’s an edge of real hostility in her voice. She puts her cigarette between her lips and bends to pick up the vase, preparing to dunk it in the fountain, having first taken out the
flowers and laid them on the step.

ROBBIE Let me do that.

CECILIA I’m all right, thanks.

But ROBBIE persists, reaching for the vase.

ROBBIE You take the flowers.

CECILIA I’m all right!

He gets hold of the vase, just as CECILIA turns away; and with the crisp sound of a dry twig snapping, two triangular sections of the rim of the vase detach themselves in his hands. In his shock, he lets them go; and they drop into the fountain and sink
slowly, spiralling to the bottom, almost three feet down.

CECILIA looks at him, horrified.

CECILIA You idiot!

CECILIA You realise this is probably the most valuable thing we own.

ROBBIE Not any more, it isn’t.

The hint of truculence in his voice serves to agitate CECILIA even more. She sets the vase down. Then straightens up, aware that ROBBIE has begun to unbutton his shirt. She takes a step towards him, then, confusedly, a step back. ROBBIE, afraid she’s going to step on the vase, throws out a restraining hand, a gesture so abrupt as to seem peremptory.

ROBBIE Careful!

CECILIA’s response is to kick off her shoes and, in front of ROBBIE’s transfixed gaze, to strip down to her underwear.

Then she steps over the lip of the fountain and lowers herself into it.

She gasps at the unexpectedly cold water, but doesn’t hesitate to plunge her face beneath the surface.

ROBBIE, watches, unable to look away, his expression a queasy mixture of fear and longing. CECILIA’S hair fantails out across the surface of the water.


CECILIA reaches down to the bottom of the basin and carefully retrieves the two triangular shards of porcelain.


CECILIA lays the two pieces of pottery down by the vase and, with her back to ROBBIE, scrambles back into her clothes.

Then she gathers up her sandals, tucks them under her arm, picks up the pottery fragments and puts them in her skirt pocket, takes up the vase of flowers and marches back towards the house.

ROBBIE stands there, watching her go.

Then he reaches out a hand and lays it on the surface of the water, as if to calm it.


BRIONY, seen through the window, closes it and stays where she is for a moment, staring out. Then she turns back into the room and crosses it, grabbing up her notebook.


Words by Christopher Hampton (based on the novel by Ian McEwan)

Pictures by Seamus McGarvey and Joe Wright

"Atonement" is available on DVD from Universal City Home Entertainment.

* In the film, the line is changed to "Don't go beyond your depth," which is much more ironic coming from the character of Cecilia, and foreshadows events later in the film.


Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Excellent work (as usual). Love the writeup (especially quoting McEwan)...and yes the opposite of hate is indifference.

Yojimbo_5 said...

Yes, indeed (love and indifference, that is).

Well, I had big shoes to fill after seeing yours, so I thank you.

I think, between the two of us, we'll nailed this thing to the (library) wall. It was a pleasure working on this with you.

We should do it again.

Hope your vacation was fun!

Courbet said...

What's the whole misunderstanding in the Robbie going to medical school dialogue? I know he think's it's about the money, but why does she bring up the whole fellowship thing? What's a First? Why does he claim he doesn't want to teach?

Yojimbo_5 said...

A fellowship is, basically, a scholarship. She brings uo that to be a doctor will take six years of school (away from her), when he could take a fast track to teaching because of his merits—his First (first in class), and he assumes she's bringing it up because of the money her father provided for his education.

Which hurts her, and makes her realize she's taking the wrong tack with him. She loves him, doesn't want him to go away, but she'll be damned if she'll admit it. It's not about the money, it's about the time he'll be away at school.

The particulars are a bit irrelevent, it's the misunderstanding that is important: they're both besotted with each other, but are playing "the game" of not showing it.

Courbet said...

Thank you. Excellent caps by the way!