I have not read the novel Atonement upon which the movie is based, though I assume it must be in many ways at least close to it since its writer associated himself with the film. At the end of the movie, Briony Tallis, in one of those dewy eyed performances which have become the signature of the later career of Vanessa Redgrave, confesses that the novel she has just published, her last because of an advancing degenerative disease that affects her brain, is a falsification of events she not only participated in but to a great extent caused when she was a young girl.
What really occurred because of a lie she told out of jealousy toward her sister and her lover Robbie ruined them both. It could be said, if said carefully, that she caused both their deaths. What is certain is that her lie denied them whatever happiness they might have had. To atone for that act–Briony herself does not seem to think it is either a sin or a crime she committed–she gives to their lives, falsely of course, a happy ending in her autobiographical book.
McEwan has expressed his opinion that Briony is not wicked and that somehow she atones for what she did by examining her own life and writing about it. I admit I do not understand that. I do not see how one atones for a terrible thing one did that has led to two people’s ruination by fictionally changing the ending of the true story. This notion seems to emerge from some post-modern nonsense about “narratives.”
The movie certainly would seem to support her and McEwan’s view of what she has done. It concludes with repeated shots of a happiness that might have been. It is the story that the movie leaves one with, Robbie and Cecilia in a cottage or on the hills by the sea with a view of the white cliffs of Dover. But, of course, that “happy ending” is fraudulent. Briony’s false accusation long ago made certain of that.
Briony would appear to have had if not a happy life, a certainly successful and relatively long one. In the best, and only truly successful part of the film, that set in 1935, Briony is, if not wicked in the absolute way that McEwan would seem to be suggesting, certainly cruel and malicious, selfish and dangerous. Her attempt to woo Robbie by pretending to drown so that he would be forced to save her is only a minor example (presuming, of course, that that event did indeed occur). It is an interesting point of view, the reverse of What Maisie Knew and The Go-Between, the innocent child witnessing guilty adults. Here, of course, the reverse is the case. It is the child who is the guilty one, the adults who, if not “innocent” exactly, act as well as they can in terrible circumstances.
But what she does, no matter who she is, is cruel, destructive, and, yes, wicked. There is an oddly postmodern twist to the notion of atonement in this movie and presumably in the book as well. One can atone for a terrible deed by writing about it and changing the end and then, perhaps, by confessing to that fabrication later, as Briony does on a TV interview show. How that is atonement in any sense that accords with the historical and theological uses of the word escapes me. If comes much too cheaply. And, most dreadfully, it is a lie, or at least lying, that continues.
The first part of the movie, showing what occurs in 1935, is by far the most successful. What follows, especially the section devoted to the British retreat from France and to Dunkirk is stagey, artificial, full of reprehensible filmic clichés, and grossly over directed. Almost everything about it looks fraudulent. and phony, big movie, big budget stagecraft.
And that is the problem with the film. It wants to offer up a lie to excuse a lie and call it atonement. I do not understand that, especially in an era when falsity, lying, has become the principle means of public discourse.
One other small point. In the first part of the movie, set in1935, Robbie is playing a record of the love duet from La Boheme between Rodolfo and Mimi. 1935. The actual recording used was recorded in 1955 by Jussi Bjoerling and Victoria de los Angeles, conducted by Thomas Beecham. I guess the director thought no one would notice. But if you are willing to distort the past even in so small a way, what might you not also accept instead of facts? That tiny falsification is an exemplification, perhaps, of the fraudulence of this film.