Directed by Joe Wright | 130 minutes | Rating: R
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Kiera Knightly, James McAvoy
This is a dark period drama based upon Ian McEwan's searing novel of lost love, a deliberate lie, and shattering consequences.
One simmering hot summer day in 1935, on the sumptuous grounds of an English manor, the privileged lives of two teenage girls take an abrupt turn for disaster. Atonement begins with 13-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) typing a play on romance. The intensity with which the typewriter keys are heard at the start of the film announces that this is no Jane Austen adaptation, like director Joe Wright's popular "Pride and Prejudice". There is an air of oppression and looming sense of foreboding which permeates the lush green fields and imposing mansion. Young Briony is infatuated with Robbie, the housekeeper's son, who has just graduated from Cambridge and looks forward to medical school. Robbie carries a torch for her older sister, without yet realizing that she burns for him as well.
The heat seems to alter the behaviour of the girls, stretching Briony's emotions into dangerous taughtness, as well as those of her impulsive older sister, 18 year old Cecilia (Kiera Knightly). Cecilia has a disturbing interlude with Robbie at the fountain and Briony, looking on, is scandalised. In a masterful stroke we see this scene first from the perplexed 13-year-old's perspective and then from Cecilia and Rob's, which shows it to be more innocent than it first appears. The stage is set for emotional confusion and unbridled lust.
Briony's dismay is compounded by an explicit sexual word dramatically typed in a note which Robbie crumples. He then retypes a more acceptable note, mistakenly giving her the dirty letter to deliver to Cecilia. Briony peers at the letter, and is deeply offended, (she wasn't the only one; I heard sharp intakes of breath as the four letter word was typed in close-up on the screen) and in her scandalised jealously brands Robbie a "sex maniac" who is a danger to women. Robbie continues dressing for an elegant dinner at the mansion, blithely unaware of the shockwaves caused by his ill-advised missive. Cecilia, angry about the note, confronts Robbie at the house, igniting their concealed passions, and leading to an intense sex scene in the library. That the two declare their love as part of the act is lost on young Briony, who is mortified to walk in on them, and bursts into tears. The young girl, whose aloof mother is oblivious to her agony, breaks under the anguish of her destroyed innocence and shattered romantic aspirations, and turns spiteful, accusing Robbie of a sexual assault which she knows he did not commit.
This is a powerful tale of passion and betrayal; the consequences of that sweltering night burden the participants for their entire tragic lives. Little sister Briony is largely seen as the only character whose sin needs atonement. We see her at 18, played by the mesmerizing Romula Garai, serving in a military hospital, paying for her perjury by humble service and spartan living.
The power of words, both written and spoken, is a central theme in Atonement, and we see Briony at the end of her life, a successful novelist (played by the eternally tragic Vanessa Redgrave), using her vivid imagination and facility with words to right the wrongs she has done. An interesting parallel is drawn between her deception and the British newsreel which attempts to put a positive spin on the evacuation of Dunkirk. We are spared no details of the horrors of that event in a wrenching scene of the bloody wounds and the low morale of the soldiers on the beach awaiting evacuation. Even the enduring love of Cecilia and Robbie cannot conquer the enormity of the consequences of Briony's betrayal; it brings home the adage that "The wages of sin are death". The film's director uses sound and perspective powerfully to make this a singularly powerful film.
However, there is an injustice in it which disturbed me. It was Cecilia and Robbie's act of fornication, and a sexual assault on her young friend, both of which were witnessed in the same evening by Briony, a young virgin who brutally lost her innocence in a single evening, driving her to rancor and revenge. No blame is placed upon the couple or on Briony's distant mother, who failed to comfort her, and we are left with unfulfilled justice at the real assailant as he continues to lead his charmed life.
Perhaps Briony is burdened with atoning for the whole sorry lot.
Vivid clothed sexual encounter, offensive four letter word, and gory battlefield wounds should keep all but mature adults from seeing this film.
Leticia Velasquez is a regular film reviewer for MercatorNet. She writes from New York.