Last night my wife and I rented Atonement, starring Kiera Knightley and James McAvoy. It is well made and has generally been well received, nominated for seven Oscars and winning one. It wasn’t my favorite film in the world, but the acting was quite good, especially Knightley as Cecilia Tallis, McAvoy as Robbie Turner and Saoirse Ronan as the young Briony Tallis, Cecilia’s sister. The cinematography was excellent, including picturesque views of the Tallis family estate on the one hand and a devastating four minute shot of the British retreat from Dunkirk on the other. The score was just about perfect, particularly its haunting use of the sound of a typewriter, which underlined the tragic power of words which the film explores. But the real interest lies in the story Atonement tells, so that is where I will focus (minor spoiler warning; also note that this film is rated R for good reason, including some strong sexuality - though no nudity - and graphic images of the aftermath of war).
Jumping backwards and forwards in time and even repeating scenes from different perspectives, the film explores the lifelong impact of one day’s terrible events. In 1935, thirteen year old Briony witnesses a series of incidents involving her adult sister Cecilia, the family gardener’s grown son Robbie, and (separately) her cousin Lola Quincy (played by Juno Temple). First Briony sees a minor incident between Cecilia and Robbie – a vase was broken and fell into the fountain; Cecilia stripped to her underwear and retrieved it – which Briony mistakenly believed that Robbie had forced her to do. Latter, she reads a sexually explicit letter Robbie wrote to Cecilia but never intended to give to her. Then (after Cecilia has read the letter), Briony finds them having sex in the library – which she misinterprets as attempted rape. Finally, she stumbles upon her cousin Lola actually being raped by an unseen man in the garden. In a flurry of righteous indignation, she accuses Robbie of the crime and provides his lust-filled note as evidence. Robbie is sent to prison (and eventually, the army), and all of their lives are changed forever.
Without giving too much more of the plot away, the rest of the film explores Cecilia and Robbie’s longing for a future free of the shame that Briony’s lie has brought upon him, and her own attempts to find atonement for that sin. As the title implies, the second of these themes is central, and the film seems to emphasize the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of truly repaying one’s sins. For nothing Briony does can undo the damage she has caused. While she rightly seeks reconciliation, it is unclear that she is able to find it in any real sense. There is little redemption in this film – though at Dunkirk we do overhear a hymn referencing “the still small voice of God” – this story focuses on the consequences of sin.
Near the beginning of the film there is a scene at a formal dinner (watch it here), in which the misdeeds of several of the guests are hinted at, especially the infelicity of Cecilia and Robbie and an earlier attack by the soon-to-be rapist. As the story focuses on her sin particularly, only Briony is explicitly asked “what sins have you committed today?” and she denies that she has done anything wrong. Of course, she is mistaken, but I think the consequences of her lie can only be properly understood in light of the other misdeeds alluded to in this scene. These in fact provide an important subtext to the story, and help elucidate the corporate nature of evil:
Briony’s lie has terrible consequences, but it would not have had the impact it did if not for the sins of the others. Foremost among these, of course, is the rape itself. Briony was wrong to accuse Robbie, and worse for insisting she was certain when she was not, but she was not wrong that a rape had occurred. At the same time, Cecilia and Robbie’s own sins that day, while less patently evil than rape, were just as responsible for what followed as anything Briony did. For instance, she could never have misinterpreted the scene at the fountain the way she did if Cecilia had not decided to strip down in front of Robbie. The broken vase surely could have been retrieved in another way, and this immodesty was not purely innocent. Similarly, though Briony was wrong to open Robbie’s letter, she was not unjustified in finding its contents scandalous (even if he didn't mean to send it), nor were he and Cecilia innocent in how they responded to this - that is, the sex that Briony interpreted as attempted rape.
Immodesty, sexual innuendo, pre-marital sex, these things are not considered wrong by our culture, which treats rape and pedophilia (and perhaps infidelity) as the only real sexual sins. Indeed, the filmmakers themselves may well accept this common assumption, but even if so, the story they tell rightly implies that together, such lesser sins can have almost an tragic as effect as rape itself.
For as long as Briony’s sin is taken alone, it might seem surprising that she proves unable to atone for it herself, but once we realize that she is caught in a web of evil beyond her control, this becomes understandable, without excusing her own part in its outcome. Her sins combined with those of Cecilia, Robbie, the rapist and many others (enough to drive a World War, in fact) and all of them together led to the tragedy this film portrays. It is not just her one lie which needs atonement, but our whole world trapped in a cycle of evil beyond any of our control. What Atonement does best, then, is to show first the dire consequences of sin – consequences that can never be fully undone – and second to emphasize that humanly and individually, we can never atone for them ourselves.