Atonement is a beautifully photographed and heavily Oscar-nominated English period drama. Set just before the start of WW2, it explores the themes of trust, imagination, and social class prejudices. Despite being a "war" movie there are no battle scenes, though there is some gore. It is a slow-paced movie that relies on character development and narrative. Indeed, the story is intriguing, posing the question where does truth end and imagination begin? It also asks the ethical question, how serious is a lie? How devastating can one inaccurate accusation be? In this case, fatal and devastating.
The three main characters, Briony (acted by three actors as the character ages from a 13 year old, to a young adult, to a dying old woman), Cecilia (Keira Knightley), and Robbie (James McAvoy) are well acted, but seem to lack much in audience attraction. As upper-class sisters, Briony is sneaky and spiteful while Cecilia is cold and aloof. Robbie is simply the housekeeper's son, expected to be restrained and respectful. In playing to these class distinctives, the movie fails to win us to any of them. We end up watching the story without really caring. If there had been more audience sympathy for any of the main characters, this would have been a cracker-barrel story. It is interesting and contemplative, but no more.
Briony, a spiteful and somewhat jealous sister, spends her time in her imagination, writing plays and looking out of windows. She seems to be living life vicariously by watching others. Indeed, the first act draws on two key scenes where she watches Cecilia and Robbie interacting. In both cases, her adolescent mind cannot understand what she sees, and draws her own conclusion. Robbie adds to his own demise, by inadvertently putting the wrong letter for Cecilia in an envelope and asking Briony to deliver it for him -- a bad mistake. And then in a third key scene in this act, Briony sees a heinous crime and imagines the criminal. In declaring who it is, she is in fact playing a story in her head. In some sense, she is getting revenge for being hurt. As a 13 year old, she does not understand how ruinous this will be.
Act 2 cuts ahead four years, and the consequences of this accusation have played out. Not only has Briony ruined Robbie's life, but her sister's too, and the sisters are no longer speaking. The family has become estranged. Sin has had its effect. But where is grace in all this? Robbie is off at war, stranded in France with the other British soldiers awaiting the retreat from Dunkirk. Cecilia is serving as a nurse, living in vain hope of Robbie coming back to her. Briony is struggling with forgiveness. She wants to be forgiven by Cecilia but does not receive this forgiveness. Both Briony and Robbie look back with regret on the choices and mistakes they have made. One different choice and the present would be so much different. Oh to go back and undo what was done. But this will not happen.
By act 3, the short concluding section of the movie, Briony has become an old and dying novelist who has spent her life writing the one book that she cannot write, Atonement, an autobiographical novel, with names left unchanged. It is her confession to the world. It is her attempt to seek the forgiveness she needs, she craves. It is clear that her heart is in desperate need for this, yet she cannot receive it. She closes with a comment that she could not write the book in truth, for if she did readers would not benefit from this. The truth will not help, either them or her. So, she again resorts to imagination, that which got her into the awful situation, to get her out. She finds her atonement, but at what price?
The movie raises the question, can we trust what we see? Is there more there than is apparent? This is clear from the technique of reviewing the same scene from different character's perspectives. Though one sees an event one way, the characters participating in the event see it another. As we see events in our lives, do we really see them and understand them? Is our understanding accurate? Perhaps our spouse or our boss would explain things differently. How would Jesus explain them to us?
The movie makes it clear that one choice, one sin, can lead to destruction for many. This we would agree with theologically, perhaps even from experience. But it seems to suggest that we can also find redemption in a lie (under some circumstances). It denies the possibility of finding redemption in the hands of a loving God. Instead, we can deceive ourselves and believe that lie . . . but won't it eventually catch us out? Atomement refutes the truth that "the truth will set you free" (Jn 8:32).
As much as I enjoyed the scenery, the dialogue, the character development, and the movie itself as a thoughtful experience, I could not determine the hero. Of the three main characters, it seems Briony is the one who proceeds on a journey of "self-growth". But it is more one of self-deception than true growth in self-actualization. In this sense, it is a questionable "atonement."
Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs