The destruction caused by a single false accusation is the theme of the 2007 film Atonement, starring James McAvoy and Keira Knightley, based on the novel by Ian McEwan. A family tragedy, occurring one summer night at an English country estate, spirals into the horrors of World War II, almost as if the private debacle leads to the international conflagration. Of course it does not, but the film clarifies the message that personal sins have resounding consequences from which the innocent suffer.
The lie which separates young lovers Robbie (McAvoy) and Cecilia (Knightley) is precipitated by a variety of circumstances which could have been prevented. For one thing, the youngsters of the household, those visiting and those in residence, seemingly receive little supervision. If someone had been watching the twins, it would not have been so easy for them to run away. And why were two young girls like Briony and Lola permitted to run through the woods alone in the dark? Something terrible was bound to happen.
Of course, if Robbie and Cecilia had chosen to fornicate in a pantry or a closet rather than right there in the library, especially in a house full of guests and children and servants, much harm would have been avoided. Briony’s thirteen year old, morbid imagination is blamed for making so much of it. No doubt there are plenty of old married women who would be startled if they happened upon two people copulating in the book shelves. Glimpsing Lola being raped in the woods a few hours later was too much for the sensitive and sheltered girl, who then vents her turmoil upon poor Robbie.
In fact, Briony is made into quite the villainess although she is only a child, a bright child with an overactive imagination, left to her own devices. We hear constantly about “Catholic guilt;” perhaps Protestant guilt is far worse. If Briony had been able receive some spiritual direction from a confessor, hopefully she would have been told at some point to clear Robbie’s name, freeing herself from the consuming self-reproach. As she matures it becomes clearer to her that she had borne false witness, that she had misunderstood what she had seen in the woods. The deep implications of her lie sink into her soul so that she is prevented from blossoming as a woman, and remains even into old age an adolescent with a deer-in-the-headlights expression. She embraces the vocation of nursing out of guilt rather than from the desire to heal. She deprives herself of love, existing in the dream of Robbie and Cecilia’s thwarted romance. She is as much a victim of the crime as they are.
Subtly crafted, with every scene a work of art, the film flows from the chintz-draped manor house with its lush gardens to the blistering shores of Dunkirk. Keira Knightley must be the most emaciated actress who ever lived, but her diction is lovely and dark eyes, expressive. What a talented actor James McAvoy is, although I usually find him homely; in Atonement he is quite handsome. The costumes are perfection; the musical score hauntingly punctuated with the clicking of Briony’s typewriter. Or is it Robbie’s typewriter? The lewd note which he mistakenly sends to Cecila is a major disaster, especially in the wrong hands. Private pecadilloes and weaknesses are pebbles precipitating an avalanche in which all is lost. Share