The award-winning film “Atonement” is based on a novel written by Englishman Ian McEwan in 2001. Because the story spans so many years in the lives of the characters, the role of Briony Tallis is portrayed by three different actresses, when Briony is 13, then 18, and then as an elderly woman.
Saoirse Ronan - Wikimedia
The story opens in England in the year 1935 when Briony was 13 (Saoirse Ronan). She is the youngest of the Tallis family and appears to be somewhat spoiled. She aspires to be a writer and has produced a play (The Trials of Arabella) which her mother thinks is wonderful. Her older sister Cecelia (Keira Knightley) has just graduated from Cambridge, as has a family servant’s son (Robbie Turner). The Tallis family has paid for Robbie’s education and he plans to go to medical school.
Young Briony seems to have a childish crush on Robbie. Through the window one day, she spied Cecelia and Robbie talking near the fountain and saw Cecelia jump in the fountain to retrieve a ceramic vase she had dropped. Exiting from the fountain, her wet clothes were sheer and clingy and Robbie turned aside as she covered herself with a cloak. It was an incident fraught with obvious sexual tension.
Keira Knightley - Wikimedia
The Wrong Version of the Letter was Sent
Robbie, back in his room, wrote a note of apology to Cecelia, and started it over a few times. He discarded one version which had prurient overtones, and opted for a milder apology. He met Briony on the path when he was returning to the main house and asked her to bring the letter to Cecelia. Of course, Briony opened the letter first. Robbie had realized too late that he gave Briony the incorrect, less mild version, and Briony was shocked at the verbiage.
Robbie was invited to dinner that evening since a friend of Cecelia and Briony’s brother Leon was expected to arrive. The visitor was Paul Marshall (Benedict Cumberbatch), a young man, somewhat obnoxious, who owned a chocolate factory.
Briony Spied on the Lovers
Cecelia and Robbie met in the library and declared their love for each other. They became exceedingly intimate and were in a compromising position when they noticed that Briony had entered the room. They all left without speaking.
Briony’s cousin Lola (Juno Temple) and her younger twin brothers, Pierrot and Jackson, were staying with the Tallis family since their parents were undergoing a divorce. Lola visited Briony in her bedroom, seeking solace for her anguish, and Briony tried to appease her by relating what she had observed earlier that day and what was contained in the letter that she had delivered.
Their friend Paul Marshall was entertaining the young twins and Lola, and it was apparent that he was more interested in Lola.
James McEvoy - Wikimedia
Robbie is Blamed
That evening, Briony informed the family that the twins had run away. A search party was formed and Briony went along with a flashlight to find the twins. Away from the group, she stumbled across a man on top of Lola, but she could not see his face. Lola was distraught and said she didn’t know either who her attacker was. Briony told her it had to be Robbie, whom she called a “sexual deviant.” The police were called, and Robbie, who had just returned with the twins in tow, was taken away by the police when Briony claimed that she saw Robbie committing the assault.
Four years later, Robbie was given the choice to remain in prison for a longer time or to join the army. Of course, he opted to join the army. Meanwhile, Cecelia had become a nurse stationed in London, and Briony, now 18 (Romola Garai), had also become a nurse, in part because she wanted to atone for the lie she had told which she now realized had precipitated a tragedy for all concerned. Earlier that year, Robbie and Cecelia were able to meet and knew that their love was still strong; they started planning for their future when the war came to an end. Cecelia had an apartment in London and had not spoken to her family, including Briony, since the incident happened.
Briony Confesses her Wrong-doing
Briony was invited to attend the wedding of Paul Marshall and her cousin Lola. On that day, she also decided to try to make amends with her sister Cecelia and went to Cecelia’s apartment. Robbie was there also. Briony admitted to both of them that she had seen Paul Marshall, not Robbie, attacking Lola the night of the search party for the twins. It was clear to all that the marriage of Paul Marshall and Lola would prevent Lola from testifying against her husband. Robbie was incensed at Briony and told her to leave.
Robbie was sent to France with his troops and was wounded. The episodes of war, including the evacuation of Dunkirk, were a bit overdrawn without cause. There appeared to be no point in showing the endless bombings and dying soldiers, which did nothing the move the plot further. I regard this as the one fatal flaw of the film.
Benedict Cumberbatch - Wikimedia
Briony is Interviewed About her Novel
Briony, an elderly lady in the present day (Vanessa Redgrave) was interviewed on television for her book which she entitled “Atonement.” You will have to view the film to hear her words about the tragedy which her lie had triggered, and its effect on all of its victims, as well as the manner in which she attempted to atone for the incident. She, herself, was not immune to the suffering incurred by her deed.
The writer of “Atonement,” Ian McEwan, has written thirteen novels, of which five have been adapted to film. He has been nominated for the Man Booker Prize six times, and won in 1998 for his novel “Amsterdam.”
“Atonement” won the Golden Globe for Best Picture and was nominated in five other categories. It was also nominated for an Academy Award in six categories. The film has helped to launch successful careers for at least four of its actors: Saoirse Ronan, Keira Knightley, James McEvoy, and Benedict Cumberbatch. They have each gone on to prove their talent in several other films.