Anybody remotely related to Christianity, and its churches, would have to be automatically interested in a film named ‘Atonement.’ That is, after all, the essence of the Christian message: that Christ came to offer atonement for our sins. However, atonement, among us mere mortals, at least, comes with many emotional layers, if it visits at all.
This film begins in a bucolic, serene, pastoral setting: the English countryside, circa 1935. Huge baronial estate. A ‘Pride and Prejudice’ kind of feel, like we’re watching the rich people be dashing, ironic, and luxuriously idle while the poorer classes, well, just work. Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley) is born to the manor; she is a stunningly beautiful young woman in her prime, who is visiting with a young man named Robbie (James McAvoy), who grew up on the grounds because he is the son of one of the house servants. There seems to be some sexual tension in the air, but of course, crossing class lines just isn’t done. Robbie is pushing a wheelbarrow, as if he has just come from his manual labor as a groundskeeper, but it’s clear that he’s a bright young man; in fact, the lord of the manor has agreed to help send him to college, a decision that’s caused a little tempest in the teapots of the gentrified visitors.
Cecilia’s younger sister, Briony (Saoirse Ronan), is trying to interest her younger cousins in participating in a little play that she wrote; they’d rather be outside, doing anything else. Briony is on the cusp of puberty, old enough to have a crush on Robbie, and sibling enough to be jealous of her sister for seeming to capture Robbie’s attention. She immaturely jumps in the deep part of the creek in his presence, just to see if he’ll jump in to save her, which he does, but then he is sputteringly exasperated afterwards, when he realizes she was in no real danger. Now she’s really starved for attention.
Meanwhile, Robbie is in his room, trying to type Cecilia a note of apology for some small slight, but what he’s really hoping is to make some connection with her. He throws away several attempts, before mischievously typing a racy, raunchy missive that states rather graphically what he’d like to do to her. Then he writes the “real” note of apology, and, you guessed it, puts the wrong one in the envelope. He mistakenly asks Briony to deliver it; she brazenly opens it, and then shows it to her parents, who are now convinced that Robbie is a (low-class) pervert.
But Cecilia, upon seeing the misplaced missive, is secretly intoxicated by its brazen directness, and manages to demonstrate her affection to Robbie in the library, and as they are engaged in the throes of their new passion, Briony walks in on them. Now she’s stupendously jealous. And later on, when she happens upon yet another coupling, this time in the field, this time involving a teenage cousin, her thirteen-year-old mind insists that it must have been Robbie doing such an awful thing, and she must be the one to alert all the adults. The saying goes that “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” but what about a prepubescent girl?
Obviously, Robbie gets in huge trouble for something he didn’t do. He goes to jail for statutory, and only manages to be released when the War breaks out, and he is offered the opportunity to enlist — as a private on probation, of course. The next thing we know, we’re all in Dunkirk, at that hellish evacuation where the reeling British army desperately needs rescuing. And Hell seems to have visited them all.
Meanwhile, Briony (now played by Romola Garai) grows up, kind of. She’s a nurse in a London hospital, trying to deal with all the sudden influx of desperately wounded soldiers. She’s still writing her plays. We, as viewers, witness a scene that appears to be her finally reconciling with her sister and her fiancée, whom she admits she wronged terribly, but then we find out that she’s made that up, too.
The next thing we know, Briony (now played by Vanessa Redgrave) is an old lady, still dealing with her guilt. After writing some 20 successful novels, now she writes this autobiographical one, where she admits to the world what she had done as a young teen to destroy the lives of those around her, but, of course, it’s too late to help them. They perished in the War.
So, after all is said and done, is more said than done? Can we ever really atone for the things we have done wrong? Are there some things you can say or do so hurtful that even if you try to take them back, the damage is already done, and it is irreparable? Are there some things for which there is really no forgiveness, at least on this side of the grave?
“Atonement” is a more arresting title than the French version (“reviens-moi”), and this film, despite misleading the viewer along with the characters, and even taking a chance on upsetting the “suspension of disbelief” at the end, possesses a unique vitality that draws us in and envelops us. Keira Knightley is stunning, and finally has a more mature part to play than the shallow ingénue. “Atonement” has both a grand sweep (at Dunkirk) and a micro-focus (on the characters in the manor), and even presents the viewer with a choice of endings. How would you like your Atonement served? With the bitterness of unresolved disquiet, or with the sweetness of imagined reconciliation? Your answer may say more about you than the film.
RONALD P. SALFEN is pastor of Grace Church in Greenville, Texas.