The first act of Joe Wright’s 2007 film Atonement takes place in the summer of 1935 in Shropshire, England, and this is the kind of heat that’ll drive you insane.
Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley—unyielding) is hot. In a temperature way, of course. Don’t mistake my language. The first time we see her, she’s poised, lying on her belly, reading a book out on the lawn in the midday sun. She turns, arms splayed out above her head, every word spoken as if it were some Herculean effort to articulate anything in this humidity. The heat, however, has not robbed her of her authority. Every sentence is a prescriptive. She’s bossy. Like I said, this heat…
Out on the lawn, Cecilia’s younger sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan—incredible), who calls her sister “Cee” (though I wouldn’t dare get that familiar), and watches her every move. When Cecilia flips over, so does Briony, arranging her arms just so to create the kind of lazy sensuality her older sister oozes. Further out on the lawn is Robbie (James McAvoy—deranged), their garden boy—isn’t it always the garden boy—pushing a wheelbarrow in the shade. He knows, maybe better than the girls, what this heat can do to a person. Still, though, they watch him, in tandem, the weight of female desire pulling on both their hearts in different ways.
This heat will slow everything down, make people talk, rather than act. Briony asks—unassumingly, but who can be sure with children—why Cecelia and Robbie don’t talk anymore. “I do. We just move in different circles, that’s all,” in a voice that suggests there’s more than circles to this. The conversation sticks though, like a drop of lemonade that adheres to one’s thigh. It’s everywhere: as Cecilia paces throughout the house, as she adjusts the floral arrangement. It manifests in nervous glances, in tics and plucks.
It’s easy to blame everything on the heat. It’s the kind of heat that makes someone come up with an excuse to do something, to speak to someone. Cecilia didn’t have to get the flowers, she didn’t have to fill up the vase, not in that moment, no, never. But with Robbie out on the steps, the sun beating down on his darkening neck, now’s a better time than ever. She adjusts a curl gone awry in the mirror.
I have wavy hair too. I know the fitful nature of curls in humidity, never quite cooperating. Heat gets to everything. Last summer, I shaved my head to avoid the struggle. It just wasn’t worth it. Nothing cooperates in these conditions.
The conversation on the walk to the fountain is curt and clipped. Professional, though packing its own bit of heat. Cecilia asks for a cigarette without even saying hello. The heart wants what the heart wants. No good flirt begins with, “Hey—.” Cecilia walks with purpose; Robbie leads with his hips, a posture so relaxed it ought to be illegal. He lights her cigarette.
They use these words—I won’t call them “triggering,” so as not to offend—but you know them. Words like “too hot,” words like “passionate.” You’re just asking for trouble in this kind of weather when you dole out language like that (more on that later, of course). Robbie’s laughing throughout because he knows it’s such a fucking joke. The posturing, the courtesy. They’re fighting the heat so hard, with every single muscle in their English jawlines, and yet they march brazenly out into the field.
Robbie and Cecilia spar. It was stupid of them, really, to go outside on a day like this in the moods they’re in. The heat gets the better of them, and neither knows what the other is saying when they’re speaking so cryptically. These idiots. A fragment of the vase goes flying off, and so does Cecilia. “Oh, you idiot,” is the most sexual sentence uttered in the film. Though Robbie’s no slouch—his “careful!” as she nearly steps on shattered ceramic is a close second.
Cecilia strips down to a mere slip to fetch the broken piece of the vase out of the fountain. Robbie watches intently, his gaze unwavering. It must feel good after all this time to dip into something cold and wet. She bursts out of the fountain, her slip sheer and wet, clinging to every curve and divot of her slender frame. Still, Robbie watches. He stares. Her fingertips drip onto the stone.
She breaks eye contact first. He looks away too. Adam and Eve in the Garden, realizing their own shame. This fucking heat. As Cecilia storms off, Robbie grips the broken handle as if his life depended on it. He exhales only, staring off into the distance at an unknowable thing. When she snatches it back out of his hand and storms back up to the house, he trips over an apology—the heat, it makes you forget your words—and his grip on nothing only heightens.
Later that afternoon, Cecilia joins her brother and his friend Paul Marshall (Benedict Cumberbatch—despicable) a so-called “chocolate millionaire” (same) to lie down by the swimming hole. Paul’s a bore: Talkative, uninteresting, too eager to please with every anecdote. Still rattled from the incident earlier in the afternoon, Cecilia looks for every opportunity to shift back to normal, to forget the heat, but a jolt runs up her spine at the mere mention of Robbie, as if she’s plunging into the fountain all over again. When enough’s enough, she hisses and dives off the diving board, aching to recall how it felt not all too long ago.
Robbie, too, immerses himself in a cold bath, the milky water pooling in the divot of his collarbone. It’s getting to him, this heat. Later still, in the waning light, he sits in the window and tries, fruitlessly, to type up an apology.
“Dear Cecilia, I thought I should write to apologize for my clumsy and inconsiderate behavior—”
Pause. Tear it off. Toss it in the bin.
Who among us has not been rendered speechless when trying to communicate with someone who makes us so horny we want to throw up and die?
“If you’re not doing anything later, we should—”
Select all. Delete.
Turn on a little music. Opera, Kesha, whatever. Set the mood. Light a cigarette and let its smoke whisper across the room. Bask in the remaining light of day. Let it poison your mind. It’s in that fervor of sunset that Robbie types his worst letter yet. The type of text that makes you whip your cell phone across your bed so you don’t have to face the response. The type of phrasing that makes your face alight. I wouldn’t dare retype it here––you have to see it for yourself if you don’t already know it by heart––but the second he finishes the letter, Robbie scoffs, cackles, and turns around in his chair. He gets his face out of the light. This heat—
Halfway across the room, you can hear your phone vibrate against a tangle of sheets. A response.
Don’t get it confused: heat is not a net good. I can see why you’d think that, why lowered inhibitions or perpetual madness might seem fruitful and fun. But it also ratchets up the anxiety, the thirst. In a bright playroom, Lola (Juno Temple—volatile) snaps at her younger twin brothers, the three of them locked up in the Tallis house for the summer while their parents go through a messy and seemingly public divorce. The heat makes the twins bothersome, Lola irritable. And Paul, the chocolate millionaire, freshly rejected by Cecilia comes lurking through, eager to please and be pleased. His jokes don’t land. It doesn’t matter.
In a household full of adults who patronize and children who isolate, Lola finds a comfort in Paul’s doting attention. It’s too bad, however, because Paul, like the sugar wrapping on his chocolate bars, can’t melt, only snap.
The heat makes you so fucking stupid: putting the wrong letter in the envelope before passing it off.
Cecilia puts on lipstick, smokes a cigarette like she’s in a Chanel ad. She wipes the lipstick off on the back of her hand. Who’s that for, a color so rich and red? Not Paul, that’s for sure. Paul sucks. And if it’s for Robbie, well, the worst thing about Robbie is that he likes her the way she already is. Cecilia talks to herself in the mirror; who among us (us = sociopaths) hasn’t?
She puts on a green dress. The green dress. In a lesser film, the dress is red. Or black. Or pink! (Literally, can you imagine.) It’s a kelly green, not quite evergreen nor is it (thankfully) lime. A bright green. An English green! It’s the color of the grass on the Tallis’ lawn, of the blossoming trees Briony moves through. It’s the color plants turn when they’ve fully photosynthesized, gotten all the light that they need.
A hot day can create mirages, images that seem real but are not really there. An awkward conversation by the fountain looks frightening. A letter written in the dying warmth of the afternoon will read like a threat. These signs and symbols will get mixed up, jumbled, start to appear like something they’re not. A harshness where there isn’t. A teenage flirtation where there’s violence.
It’s in this state, with the sun fully set and only the mere glow of a library lamp, that Briony sees Robbie and Cecilia in the library, limbs tangled, hitched over ladders and shelves, skin aglow in the humidity of a summer evening. Only moments prior, they kiss in silence, awkwardly, pinned against each other as bold “I love yous” come tumbling from their mouths like obligations. This heat they’ve made for themselves.
Here is what I know to be true: it’s never really the heat. It’s an opt-out, an excuse, a misplacement of agency. The heat does not make Cecelia mean, nor Robbie lustful, nor Paul wicked, nor Lola susceptible. These traits are inherent, buried or otherwise, and to write them off on one particular summer day wouldn’t feel right.
Because this isn’t really Cecilia and Robbie’s story, and it’s not Paul and Lola’s story either.
Atonement is a triptych, a story in three acts, and the story belongs to Briony. Briony who watched Cecilia and Robbie fight by the fountain, who consoled Lola as she sobbed over an injury, and who ultimately points the finger at Robbie for an act he didn’t commit. Her jealousy and misunderstanding of everyone’s sexual politics overwhelms her. And, to her credit, how could it not? She exists on the precipice of adulthood, both terrified and in awe of her own emotions, as powerful a force as nature can be. Perhaps she is the heat.
With that, the dreamy first act of Atonement comes to a shuddering halt, and the rest of the film grapples with the reality of this very hot, no good day. Nothing reaches that level of dreaminess again, and for good reason too. The myth shatters. The fable comes to an end. Briony grows up the second she points her finger, and she lives in that trying, painful adulthood for the rest of her life, sentencing everyone else to join her there.
The rest of Atonement is gray, dark. There are no more hot days.