“Atonement” shows the power of a lie and how hard it is to undo a wrong done. It begins as a piece of fluff, during the days before World War II, on an English estate. Young writer-to-be Briony Tallis (Saorise Ronan) witnesses an act and misunderstands what she has seen, then tells a lie. That lie turns the world upside down for her sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), and Cecilia’s lover, Robbie (James McAvovy).
It is 1935 and England is very structured with a class system. Cecilia is a daughter of wealth, while Robbie is the son of the family housekeeper. As such, they love from afar. This love becomes real and spoken after the two accidentally break a vase by the fountain in the garden. Briony sees this from a window in the house and thinks Robbie is harming her sister.
This gets more complicated when Lola (Juno Temple), a cousin visiting the family, is caught in the night being sexually assaulted by someone. Briony says it is Robbie, which she knows is not true, and off to prison he goes.
War comes to Europe and Robbie is given a chance to get out of prison by enlisting in the army. Moving forward in time, we see him and two other soldiers caught behind lines, in a French barn. Lost from their unit, the three are walking in search of someone to report to. While on the journey to Dunkirk, Robbie flashes back to the days before he shipped out and the time spent with Cecilia. He promises to return to her, and it is her memory that pushes him to survive.
Cecilia awaits his return, while Briony (Romola Garai) grows up to join the ranks of nurses serving in the war effort. We see her doing all manner of work in order to help, but also as a means of penance for what she did to Robbie. Age has taught her that she was wrong in what she believed and did to Robbie, and she cleans bedpans and changes bandages in an attempt at atonement.
“Atonement” is based on the novel by Ian McEwan and is filmed in a manner that jumps back and forth in time. We see things as they were and what others perceive them to be. This is unsettling, but becomes a means of illumination. We learn that perception is not always reality. An act is not the same to witnesses as to participants.
At film’s end, we’re given new details of the story, and we’re reminded of an important truth: We may be forgiven of our sin, but sometimes we cannot get away from the consequences of our sin.
Nominated for Best Picture of 2007, “Atonement” illustrates that youthful eyes simply do not understand some events and, as such, shouldn’t see them. The power of misunderstanding is so great that it can ruin loves and lives.
The picture also tells us that atonement is difficult in our humanity. There must be something beyond us that makes it possible.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing war images, language and some sexuality.
Director: Joe Wright
Writer: Christopher Hampton (from the novel by Ian McEwan)
Cast: Robbie Turner: James McAvoy; Cecilia Tallis: Kiera Knightley; Briony Tallis: Saoirse Ronan; Lola: Juno Temple; Grace Turner: Brenda Blethyn; Briony (at 18): Ramola Garai;
Older Briony: Vanessa Redgrave.
The movie’s official Web site is here.
Read Mike Parnell’s reviews of other 2007 Best Picture nominees: