The prayer of confession in the Episcopal Church asks for forgiveness for things done and things left undone, thus recognizing that we break with God’s will for creation not only when we do “bad” things to one another, but when we fail to do “good” things as well. Two current films illustrate this point of evil (in)activity. Both based on best-selling novels, The Kite Runner and Atonement focus on characters who either failed to do good or consciously chose to do wrong and must face the consequences of their choices years later.
Baed on the novel by Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner tells the story of Amir (Khalid Abdalla), an Afghan immigrant to the United States. Once a son of a wealthy, respected Afghan elite, the Russian invasion forced Amir and his father, Baba (Homayoun Ershadi), to flee the country, eventually settling in Fremont, California. Amir graduates from college and pursues a writing career. As his first book is published, he receives a call from an old friend that forces him to right a past wrong. Amir must return to his childhood home, now under Taliban rule, to rescue the son, Sohrab (Ali Danish Bakhty Ari) of his former servant/friend, Hassan. His rescue mission gives him a chance to redeem himself from failing to save Hassan from a violent, humiliating act when they were children.
Director Marc Forster has taken a straightforward approach in adapting the novel for the screen, and rightfully so, given the novel’s compelling story. In Zekeria Ebrahimi and Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada, the filmmakers found more-than-capable actors who are truly the highlight of the film as young Amir and Hassan respectively. The film does a fine job of portraying the unfortunate political situation in which Afghanistan found itself; however, it fails to capture the harsh conditions of Amir and Baba’s exile, and by extension, Baba’s fall from wealth and prestige. On the other hand, it does enhance the very real danger that Amir faces by returning to save Sohrab as he witnesses a stoning and is even violently attacked himself.
If there is a theme to the novel and film, it is Rahim Khan’s (Shaun Toub) assertion to Amir that “there is a chance to be good again.” I would argue that, for Amir, the decision to rescue Hassan’s son is a chance to be good…period. Though the film conveys the friendship between Amir and Hassan as children, it is clearly not an equal one, nor could it have been. Amir’s actions toward Hassan in public and his eventual betrayal of him far outweigh any private goodness he felt toward him. Amir’s inaction to stop Hassan being assaulted as a kid and his subsequent action of framing him for theft because he could no longer tolerate his unflinching faithfulness, require nothing less than a potentially self-sacrificial act…his return to a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
Though there are some sweeping moments in The Kite Runner, spurred on by fantastic performances by children and adults alike, I unfortunately left the film with a rather ambivalent feeling. To be such an intimate film about the choices that Amir must make, it does not provide enough focus on the contexts in which he had to make them.
Having not read Ian McEwan’s Atonement, I attended the film with a blank slate; therefore, I can only suspect what must be a wonderful cinematic adaptation by director Joe Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton. The cinematography by Seamus McGarvey no doubt deserves much of this credit and makes for one of the most visually stunning films of the year.
Atonement tells the story of misunderstood events that lead to tragic results. Young Briony Tallis (played in part by Saoirse Ronan) is an aspiring writer who, while perceptive, fails to comprehend the relationship between her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightly) and their gardener, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy). Having had her childhood crush on Robbie crushed, she harbors resentment against him, imagines him to be a sex predator, and frames him for a rape that he did not commit. Sent off to prison, Robbie eventually enlists in the army to fight in World War II. Cecilia runs away from her family for refusing to stand up for Robbie’s innocence. They never have the opportunity to live out their relationship as they both die in the war…Cecilia in a flooded bomb shelter and Robbie from an illness on the day of the evacuation. The film, and Briony’s story, seeks to make sense of her past wrong and how she might atone for this sin.
Again, this is a beautiful film from scene composition to costumes. The long, tracking shot of the seige at Dunkirk is nearly overwhelming as it shows not only the horrors of war, but the insanity of it as well. Visit the Atonement website and click on the Dunkirk picture under the video clips link for a short featurette on perhaps the film’s most amazing sequence. James McAvoy gives another great performance and the three iterations of Briony, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, and Vanessa Redgrave, are not only consistent but effective as well.
While the film’s title points directly to its theme, it might not necessarily be a reality for Briony. In the final scene, Briony has become a successful author and is being interviewed about Atonement, her most recent, and final, novel. In the interview, she confesses to a highly autobiographical intention and her desire to atone for her destruction of Cecilia and Robbie’s relationship. However, this places all the power in her hands, especially since Cecilia and Robbie have both died. A literary life is no compensation for a real one. The scene that Briony constructs in which she apologizes to Cecilia and Robbie in person is obviously an internal argument with herself. Imagining Robbie’s vehement accusations of how long it takes to learn the difference between right and wrong is certainly an ultimate conviction. However, it is one realized unfortunately too late. Thus, there might be no atonement for Briony, and while this is not to say that forgiveness cannot be had, it does mean that it is a sin for which she must seek atonement for the rest of her short life.
If it is difficult to see Briony’s atonement, we must also be forced to consider the fact that Robbie is being forced to atone for his love of Cecilia. In a sense, it seems as if he is being punished for having crossed social boundaries, not only for love of a woman but for having gone to Cambridge and planning a medical degree through her father’s financial backing. Robbie is a victim of not only his love of Cecilia but for rejecting the love of Briony as well. In the end, the real rapist, someone of similar social status and a friend of the family, gets away free by marrying the girl that he assaulted, an atonement blessed by their same financial status.
The Kite Runner (122 mins.) is rated PG-13 for strong thematic elements including the rape of a child, violence, and brief strong language and is in theaters everywhere. Atonement (130 mins.) is rated R for disturbing war images, language, and some sexuality and is in theaters everywhere as well.