In Atonement (2007) a young girl's lie has consequences that reverberate throughout the entire film. Based on the novel by Ian McEwan, the film is a narrative about a narrative. Which narrative is the more important to you depends on how you view the story. The main character could be the young girl who tells the lie. Or the main characters could be two lovers separated by class, mischance, and war.
The film spans the years between 1935 and the evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940. One could call Atonement a period piece, and it is certainly that, but it focuses our attention not on costumes or the artifacts of a particular era but on characters and the circumstances they find themselves in. Even so, the first half of the film is a brilliant evocation of the middle 1930s in England. You feel you are there, that what you are seeing is real. We see most of this part of the film through the eyes of a 13-year-old girl named Brionny Tallis, beautifully and creepily played by Saoirse Ronan. She wants to be a writer. She has written a play that she tries to get family members to rehearse for her. She is highly imaginative, always observing and thinking about what she observes, and herein lies the source of her error. She sees something she does not understand, a scene between her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the son of a servant whom the family has put through college. The film makes clear that some misunderstanding has occurred by repeating several key scenes, once from Brionny's point of view, and once from a more objective viewpoint. The scenes involve a tense encounter at a fountain and two instances of lovemaking. The differences between the two perspectives are subtle, but they are sufficient to let us know that perspective, context, and a child's limited understanding are crucial factors in the developing story.
As a result of Brionny's lie, Robbie is accused of a crime and sent to prison and later given the choice of remaining in prison or joining the British army. Cecilia is estranged from her family and goes to work as a nurse in London. She is apparently angry with her family for believing Brionny's story.
Atonement is beautifully photographed. The early portions, set on an estate in the English countryside, seem nearly flawless. Beauty is the film's downfall, at least in the later sections, which occur around 1940 on the battlefront in France as the British forces retreat in response to the German invasion and on the home front in London, where Cecilia and Brionny work as nurses.
The film follows Robbie and two other soldiers who have become separated from their unit and are wandering through the countryside, hoping to meet up with British forces before the invading Germans arrive. They sleep in the loft of a barn; they walk through immense expanses of landscape. In an orchard, Robbie comes across a group of young school girls, all shot to death in their school uniforms, lying placidly on the ground. When the three men at last are reunited with the British army on the beach at Dunkirk, total chaos reigns, and the effect is a strange mixture of carnival and nightmare and dream. Soldiers are drunk and milling around, singing in groups, wandering aimlessly. Horses that cannot be evacuated are shot. Equipment that cannot be taken back to England is destroyed. Chaos and disorder are rampant. One unbroken camera sequence moves for five minutes back and forth across the varied activities and events taking place on the beach. The result is impressive and often stunning. At the same time, it is too much a sensation—there's no point to it, except for the fact that Robbie and his mates are part of it all. The scene in which Robbie finds the slaughtered school girls leaves one numb. Robbie responds with a sort of mute horror, and the various elements of the scene certainly do contrast and contradict one another—the dead young girls in their neat uniforms, the holes in their heads or other parts of their body, the strange absence of blood. But to what end?
The later scenes in the film follow Brionny in her work as a nurse in a military hospital. She continues to write, late at night. She's come to realize the terrible error she committed five years before and attempts to contact her sister, who never responds to her letters. She wants to correct her mistake, to atone for her sin. We see one scene in which she does go to visit Cecilia and discovers her living with Robbie, who is briefly home from the battlefront.
In a final scene, many years later, Brionny is 77 years old and being interviewed about her 21st and what she describes as her last novel, which is about Cecilia and Robbie and the lie told at the start of the film.
As I said at the start, Atonement is a story about a story, and there are significant differences between the stories told. There is the story that Brionny is an actual part of, along with the other characters, and there is the story that she tells in her novel, the story that is, presumably, the substance of the film.
Brionny's novel is an attempt at atonement for her sin and the ruined lives it caused. But does it make for a successful film? Well, yes, on a certain level Atonement is well made, moving, intellectually engaging. Brionny herself is the most interesting of the characters, not only for how she imaginatively immerses herself in all aspects of the narrative, but also for the developing nature of her character. She is self-reflexive, hyper-conscious, in the extreme. She is the mind of the film, essentially, and in her we see how from strange and perverse admixtures of life and imagination and personal complications art is made.
But for me, the film's ultimate disposition of its story is a sentimental surrender—another lie, a distortion of truth and reality--rather than a real gesture of expiation. The film doesn't want us to see it that way, but I do nonetheless.
Atonement was directed by Joe Wright, who also directed Pride & Prejudice in 2005.