Writing off a heinous sin in order to save your soul


The hype on “Atonement” is that it’s a story about guilt, passion and sex: a crowd-pleasing triumvirate. Though the story does bank on these factors, it’s really an emotional experiment and a literary conceit designed to intrigue the intellect rather than titillate the senses. You shouldn’t really expect any less from a movie based on the Ian McEwan novel of the same title that many critics acclaim as his best — the work that made his name synonymous with “greatest living English writer.”

Director Joe Wright is clearly at ease in McEwan territory, and his “Atonement” bears up to scrutiny well, emulating the author’s prowess at building emotional suspense, and it’s also uncompromising in depicting the pain and mental torture McEwan inflicts on his characters.

Above all, “Atonement” takes for granted that the viewers (including McEwan’s faithful readers) have the intelligence and insight to get the film, to go beyond the obvious trappings of the story to the literary adventure concealed like a shot of whiskey under the candied exterior.

Director Joe Wright
Run Time 130 minutes
Language English

Set some time in the 1930s, the first part of the film is heavily atmospheric, awash in the hazy heat and lush colors of an English summer. Cambridge student Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley) is home for the holidays in a stately family house, wearing ennui like a delicate stole. Also on the premises (and back from Cambridge) is Robbie (James McEvoy), the housekeeper’s promising young son upon whom Cecilia’s father had seen fit to bestow “a gentleman’s education” before passing away some years ago.

Robbie and Cecilia were close friends during childhood, but now their relationship seems tense — a fact keenly observed by Cecilia’s 13-year-old sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan). Briony has her heart set on becoming a writer and is suitably equipped with a turbulent imagination, plus an inherent need for drama. She’s upset when no one in the family is willing to act in a romantic play she has written, and the disappointment causes her to misinterpret a scene witnessed from her window: Cecilia stripping to her underwear, then diving into a fountain to retrieve part of a broken heirloom, as Robbie watches. In Briony’s mind, this smacks of male chauvinism, but it also excites her.

Later, she walks in on her sister and Robbie making passionate love in the library and her emotions spin out of control. When some friends come to visit, and one of the girls is found raped, Briony points her finger at Robbie.

In spite of his vehement denials and Cecilia’s outraged defense, he’s arrested, convicted and imprisoned. When he’s finally released four years later, World War II has broken out, and Robbie is sent to the front lines. Cecilia has severed all ties with her family and trained as an army nurse. Briony has remained in the house, and at 18 she is only now beginning to recognize the magnitude of her lie and accepting what for her will become a lifelong burden of guilt.

The film traces Briony’s spiritual journey and the process of her “atonement,” which, as a fledgling writer, she links to literature. While Briony attempts to exonerate herself from the binds of her terrible crime by putting words down on paper, Robbie and Cecilia battle the brutal physical realities of separation, work and war.

Years later, having survived everyone who had been touched by the tragedy and become an established author, Briony (played in her twilight years by Vanessa Redgrave) makes a final attempt to lay the ghosts of the past with a story that brings forgiveness on herself and happiness to her sister and Robbie.

Briony’s faith in the power of fiction to alter (or enhance) reality reflects the faith of all writers — and you almost want to believe her insistence on the effectiveness of her device. But in the end, the movie serves as her foil: No amount of words can match the impact of Cecilia as she was on that summer afternoon, stripped almost naked and emerging from the fountain like a defiant, triumphant mermaid, or the feverish passion she later shares with Robbie in the library.

At the same time, without Briony’s words, their moment of gorgeous glory would never have been recorded and remembered; whether Briony’s atonement was also her justification remains an inescapable dilemma.