“How old do you have to be before you know the difference between right and wrong?”

I have no idea how to discuss Atonement without the extensive deployment of heavy amounts of spoilers, so be warned: I spoil the movie. Big time. You’re warned.

I remember seeing ads for Atonement last winter and thinking, “That looks up my alley.” Those ads portrayed the film as a sweeping epic romance set in the World War II era, and for at least part of the movie, it’s definitely that. But for only part. The rest of the time, it’s a psychological character study in the fairly intimate setting of an English country estate.

It’s 1935, and there are two sisters: the younger, Briony, and the elder, Cecilia. And there’s the housekeeper’s son, Robby. Robby’s in love with Cecilia, who gradually comes to love him. Problem is – and we don’t learn this until quite some way into the film, more than halfway, actually – Briony is in love with him too, in her own schoolgirl way. Various things happen that lead Briony to telling a lie about Robby, a lie which gets him thrown in prison and later offered parole on the condition that he join the British army. Of course, he’s sent to the front lines in France (it’s 1940, after all), while Cecilia works as a nurse in a London hospital. Will Robby make it back to her at war’s end?

OK, there’s the basic plot summary. After this, the spoilers. I’ll put it a few line breaks here, just in case:

OK. Here we go.

If you’ve seen the film, you know that Robby does not make it back; instead he dies in Dunkirk, before the evacuation, when his festering chest wound becomes a full-fledged infection. Cecilia too dies, in one of the London bomb raids. So where is the “atonement” of the title? In the actions of Briony. But does it? Is there any atonement at all in Atonement?

This movie uses a device that I’m generally not terribly fond of, the “unreliable narrator”. I’m not terribly fond of this device because in general I prefer to lose myself in the actual story and not think too much about metaconcerns such as whether the story is happening or not. (That’s not to say that I never like the “unreliable narrator”; it just tends to open up cans of worms that aren’t to my liking at a times.) Here, in Atonement, the POV shifts often. We see events from Briony’s point of view, and then the film will double back and show us the same events from an “Omniscient” POV, so we end up seeing that Briony has things wrong, but not maliciously so. As the film’s opening act leads up to Briony’s lie, the film carefully leads us to understand her lie, and, in fact, not even see it as a lie at all.

Here’s what happens. Briony witnesses a kind-of-erotic moment between Robby and Cecilia, in which Cecilia strips to her slip and jumps into the family estate’s giant Victorian fountain. From her vantage point, it seems that Cecilia is showing off her figure for Robby, and she’s shocked. A few minutes later the film shows us the same scene, for what really happened: Robby inadvertently causes something valuable to fall into the fountain, and Cecilia goes in to retrieve it. We know this, but Briony doesn’t. Strike one.

Later on Robby is writing a love letter to Cecilia, and after writing one very naughty version (using that one word that every woman loathes), he writes a much nicer version that’s polite and gentlemanly, just before going to join Cecilia’s family for a formal dinner. On the way he comes across Briony playing in the fields, and he asks her to deliver the letter, and only as she’s scampering away, out of earshot, does he realize that he’s put the naughty version of the letter into the envelope instead of the gentlemanly one he’d meant to give her. Of course, Briony reads the letter and is horrified. Strike two.

Still later, Briony walks into the family library and finds Robby and Briony up against the bookshelves in the throes of passion. Strike three. After talking over these matters with a visiting cousin, Briony decides that Robby is a sexual maniac, a predator against women, when in fact he’s merely in love with Cecilia.

That night, after the dinner, two younger cousins, twin boys, run away, and everyone disperses into the countryside around the estate to look for them. Briony comes across two people copulating, and the man gets up and runs away, without Briony getting a good look at him; the woman is not, as we might have expected, Cecilia but rather the cousin she’d earlier talked to about Robby being a sexual predator. The cousin appears to have been raped, and Briony tells everyone that Robby did it. He’s taken into custody by the police, and we think that Briony’s made a mistake, albeit a terrible one.

Later on, after some very emotional stuff in the war, in which we see Robby’s harrowing trek to Dunkirk contrasted with Cecilia’s life as a London nurse, our POV returns to Briony, and we eventually learn that she had a crush on Robby in her youth but he rebuffed her advances, leaving her angry; and we learn that on the night she told the police he’d been the rapist she had, in fact, seen the man’s face quite clearly, and knew perfectly well that it wasn’t Robby at all – and yet told her lie anyway. Now we know her for a liar.

Toward the end of the film, there’s a sudden cut to the present day, and an old woman is sitting for a television interview. This is Briony, and she’s just written a novel about this whole affair; but she’s written a happy ending for Robby and Cecilia, in which he comes back from the war and they have some kind of time together. She’s written this ending, sparing her own character in the book nothing of the guilt, as her act of atonement for her lie, even though the ending was false: Robby and Cecilia died in separate wartime events, never to meet again after they were parted. All Briony can give them is fictional atonement.

The revelation that Robby and Cecilia died rather than ever see each other again hit me between the eyes. I’d been prepared for some kind of sad ending, but not one like this, where we’re shown a happy ending and then had it snatched back. The initial question is, how much of an act of atonement is Briony’s creation of a fictional Robby and Cecilia who got to live the life that was denied them in real life?

But on further consideration, it’s not at all clear that Briony has given them any happy ending at all. When she goes to Robby and Cecilia to confess her wrongdoing those years before, in that scene that is soon revealed to be fiction, it’s established that Briony’s recanting of her story is unlikely to have any legal effect whatsoever as far as Robby’s status as a convict goes, and he’s not out of danger anyway, as he is going back to war in a day or two. The happy ending Briony gives the people she wronged is unreal on more than one level.

Seen in the light of learning that what we’ve seen throughout the film is Briony’s novelization of the events, everything is called into question; not only Briony’s actions and motivations, but nearly everything that happened in the movie at all. If Briony never got to speak to her sister again shortly after she told her lie, she can’t really know that the moment by the fountain was as chaste as we were shown. Likewise with Robby’s letters; Briony couldn’t have known that Robby had written any letter other than the one she delivered. Has she made up all that, in an effort to further illustrate her own faults as a narrator? Or worse, has she made all that up in an attempt to partially justify her lie, odious as it may have been? It’s possible to understand, if not condone, the poor behavior of an immature adolescent girl the object of whose affections is instead in love with her older sister.

The fact that we’ve watched not the real events that transpired but Briony’s interpretations and impressions of them also color the oddly surreal sequence that unfolds when Robby arrives at Dunkirk to find an almost incomprehensibly vast panorama of wartime suffering as the Allied armies await their evacuation. This sequence is a pretty amazing one, seemingly shot as one long take (I don’t see how it could have been), in which the camera slides past horror after horror: soldiers behaving insanely, soldiers drunk and dying, soldiers killing beautiful horses for no apparent reason, soldiers riding children’s rides. Was there really a Ferris Wheel in full operation at Dunkirk as the soldiers awaited the evacuation? The whole sequence seems to stand at some odds with the rest of the film’s intimate nature, but that’s the point, and it takes on a whole new light when we realize that we’ve seen not a depiction of Dunkirk as it was but merely Dunkirk as Briony has imagined it.

In terms of production, Atonement is very well done. At times, especially in the first act, the tone is almost like one of those staid old Masterpiece Theater dramas, but this mood is often shifted by the use of awkward closeups, odd closeups, and washed out colors. Many times the film almost feels claustrophobic, suggesting that the characters are closed in even as they stand out in the open.

The music score is impressive as well. Dario Marianelli wrote it, and it’s a score of great psychological tension; the music churns and creates nervousness with unresolved chords, snatches of melody, repeated rhythms, and the clever use of sounds from with the film, most notably Briony’s typewriter. It’s a very impressionistic score, at one point even using Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”.

I wasn’t sure, when I was done watching it, if I’d liked Atonement or not; but for a long while after, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. That must mean something.

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4 Responses to “How old do you have to be before you know the difference between right and wrong?”

  1. SK Waller says:

    There is nothing I can add to this excellent analysis, except to say that I liked Atonement after the fact more than during. I’m not fond of Knightly, for one thing, but I do like McAvoy. It’s one of those films that I appreciated more, the longer that I could reflect one it.

  2. Roger Owen Green says:

    I wasn’t a fan. The first part was OK (though the obsession over the typed word, with the heavy-handed music was a bit much). But the rest failed to capture. Maybe it was because the war scenes felt as though they were filmed on a back lot. Or maybe it was the lack of Atonement.

  3. Mimi says:

    I’ve read the book, but not seen the movie. What was interesting about the book (spoiler alert) is that by the time that Robby and Cecelia’s deaths happen, Briony is the main narrator and it is a small sidenote to the plot. So, to find out that it was such a tearjerker of a moment in the movie is interesting.

    Anyway, there was a lack of Atonement in the book too – but it is well written.

  4. Tosy And Cosh says:

    Marianelli’s score is one of my favorites from past years; it’s been on near-constant play on the iPod for a while now. The one sequence, during that tracking shot you cite, when the score interpolates the singing of the soldier’s choir is breathtakingly beautiful.

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