What power do words hold? In a society as careless in its use of language as ours so often is, the answer may not always be clear. From the distortions of the government and media to the ‘white lies’ we all tell, deception pervades our culture from top to bottom.
Atonement, based on a novel by Ian McEwan, offers a firm challenge to this casual attitude, emphasizing the great and tragic power that a lie can hold. Set before and during the Second World War, this drama is well-made and well-acted, especially by Kiera Knightley as Cecilia Tallis, Saoirse Ronan as her young sister Briony, and James McAvoy as Robbie Turner (son of the family gardener).
The cinematography is excellent, including both picturesque views of the Tallis family estate and a devastating four minute shot of the British retreat from Dunkirk. And the Oscar-winning score is just about perfect, particularly its haunting use of the click-clack of a typewriter, underlining the power of words the film explores. But the real interest lies in Atonement’s story of sin and its aftermath.
Jumping backwards and forwards in time, even repeating key scenes from different perspectives, the film explores the lifelong impact of one day’s terrible events. In 1935, thirteen year old Briony witnesses a series of incidents involving Cecilia, Robbie and (separately) her cousin Lola Quincy (played by Juno Temple). Misinterpreting these events, and perhaps feeling a bit of childhood spite, she falsely accuses Robbie of an awful crime. Cecelia alone knows the whole story and believes him innocent, but her protestations are overruled by Briony’s impassioned indictment, and he is sent to prison (and eventually, the army), changing all of their lives forever.
The scene then shifts four years ahead and we find Robbie retreating from France with the British Army while Cecilia and Briony are nurses in London. From there, the film effectively exploits its unusual presentation of time and perspective to emphasize the lasting consequences of that day’s events.
Particular focus, of course, falls on Briony’s search for atonement as she–along with the viewer–steadily realizes that not everything is as it first appears. In the process, the film offers brief glimpses of redemption–including a group of soldiers singing of “the still small voice of God” during that shot at Dunkirk–but by and large this story centers on the irreversibility of sin, implicitly asking whether it is even possible to truly atone for one’s own guilt.
But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film lies in its exploration of the corporate nature of evil. In the midst of the events which lead to Briony’s accusation, the Tallis family hosts a formal dinner during which the misdeeds of several of the guests are hinted at, especially those of Cecilia and Robbie, and an earlier attack by the real criminal (you can watch the scene here). As the story focuses on Briony’s guilt particularly, only she is actually asked “What sins have you committed today?” (she denies any wrongdoing), but these others’ sins provide vital context for Briony’s own. They, in fact, go a long way toward explaining why Briony found her sin so difficult to reverse. For though her lie does indeed carry terrible consequences, it could not have had impact it did apart from these other sins, to which the characters themselves remain largely oblivious.
For instance, Cecilia and Robbie’s own actions that day–immodesty, sexual innuendo and pre-marital sex–while certainly less evil than that of which Robbie is eventually accused, were not truly innocent, and established the essential context for Briony’s subsequent misunderstanding and misrepresentation. When the crime does occur then (and it really did, she was only incorrect about the perpetrator), their previous acts lent her accusation credibility. Though Briony was gravely mistaken to accuse Robbie, and worse to falsely insist she was certain, things might have turned out very differently if Cecelia had admitted their own role in the day’s events. But she did not, and that silence was as damning as Briony’s lie.
Underlying Briony’s struggle to find atonement, then, is this corporate aspect of evil, as her sins combine with those of Cecilia, Robbie, the actual criminal and many others (enough to drive a World War, in fact), all of which together lead to the tragedy at the heart of the film. What Atonement does best is to show how even such “little” sins–deceit, immodesty, pride–can combine to produce such dire and lasting harm, which we can never truly resolve ourselves. For in the end, it is not just Briony’s lie which proves in need of atonement, but our whole world trapped in a cycle of evil beyond any one person’s control.
Atonement is rated R for “disturbing war images, language and some sexuality.” There is little on-scene violence and no nudity, but one scene of strong sexuality, some graphic images of the aftermath of war, one very strongly emphasized explicative and other adult themes. All of this is germane to the plot, but the rating is well deserved.