Briony (Saoirse Ronan) is a 13-year-old daughter in a wealthy family in pre-WWII England. She's developed a serious crush on Robbie (James McAvoy), the son of the family housekeeper. She throws herself at him, even pretending to be drowning so he will rescue her. When he scornfully rejects her, and passionately declares his love for her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley), Briony decides to get even. When a youthful cousin is raped by a friend of her older brother, Briony gives false witness and identifies Robbie as the rapist.
Briony exhibits anti-social personality disorder, what we would call a sociopath (aka psychopath). She is able to lie, cheat or steal without any guilt, shame or remorse. Her goals are control and winning, and any action is permissible to attain the goal. She has no conscience, and only a hole where her heart should be.
Convicted of rape and imprisoned, Robbie accepts a wartime reprieve by agreeing to join the British armed forces fighting the Germans in France. Tragically, he dies of septicemia during the British evacuation at Dunkirk in 1940, and Cecilia later dies during a German bombing raid on London. So the lives of the two lovers are destroyed without their ever having had a moment of true happiness. And Briony lives with her secret for the next seventy years. Finally, upon learning that she is dying of dementia, an 83-year-old Briony (Vanessa Redgrave) decides to tell the truth in an autobiographical novel, she calls Atonement.
Atonement is the act of making honest and heartfelt amends or reparations for an injury or wrong; it is an act of contrition, of facing those whom one has wronged, and accepting the consequences and punishment for one’s actions. Briony doesn’t atone for anything; she waits until Cecilia and Robbie are long dead, and she herself is dying, before publishing the truth, which she admits isn't accurate, since she gives the lovers' story a happy ending in her novel. This isn't atonement - this is spineless cowardice, purely and simply. This is failure to accept responsibility and deal with the consequences. A more apt title for book and film would have been A Lie Told and Lives Destroyed.
While the film's production values are excellent, there is no moral and ethical foundation for the story. Its only value is in awakening us to the fact that roughly one in 20 (5%) of all adults are sociopaths, and when we cross them, they have the potential to destroy our lives. If you'd like to see Keira Knightley shine in a critically acclaimed, truly magnificent film, I highly recommend Pride and Prejudice.
Labels: drama, mystery, romance, tragedy, war, WWII
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=74, viewers=76)