When thinking about sin, one thinks normally of atonement. In Joe Wright's new film, Atonement, based on the Ian McEwan novel- the sin is committed within the first hour, and the second hour shows the consequences of that sin spinning out of control, spinning through three people's lives and leaving a fourth, the perpetrator, in that icy circle of hell that Dante reserved for traitors. Wright's film, like McEwan's book, plays also with the way that teenagers and adults relate to their sexuality- the way that teenagers in particular relate to adult sexuality and adult desire within them and within others. The binding between these two concepts- atonement through a life for a sin committed in childhood which may have proceeded from a childlike fear and attraction to sexuality.
Atonement is about a moment in a life. Briony Tallis, a thirteen year old girl, tells the police that her sister's boyfriend is a rapist who has raped another young girl. Briony's statement comes out of facts we learn later on that it would be unfair to ruin the film through using, but also because she misunderstands the situation. Seeing her sister's boyfriend and her sister together in two incidents she interprets her sister's boyfriend as a sexual predator- and her sister as his victim. When she picks up a note from the boyfriend to the sister which mentions kissing her sister's soft wet oriface, she presumes that this is yet another part of the boyfriend's aggressive strategy against the sister. Consequently she out of a mixture of motives and a mixture of understandings, decides to inform the police that the rapist of her cousin is the boyfriend, Robbie. She tells them that despite the fact that later on she recalls having seen another man doing the crime, despite the fact that it may be that she actually knows at the time that it was another man.
That lie catapults Robbie straight into prison- and then as an exchange for his freedom he is sent to France as a private, where he loses his unit and has to struggle back to Dunkirk and to home. One of the film's few faults is that we see none of the life in prison that Robbie lived, a life which was horrible and harsh, but we see enough of the second world war to know why that too was a horrible experience. Meanwhile the sister, Cecilia, disowns her family, refuses to speak to them at all and becomes a nurse down in Balham. Her bitterness towards Briony is demonstrated by the fact that she refuses to return any of her letters. Oh and the rape victim, a young girl called Lola, she ends up marrying the rapist. Three lives are ruined by one lie- and we see Briony in her youth and age having to carry the torment of knowing how those lives were ruined, of knowing the destruction her one lie has caused.
The film is well acted. In particular the youngest of the performers, an Irish girl Saoirsie Ronan who plays Briony acts her part incredibly well- she captures the 13 year old Briony's childishness but also her incipient adulthood, her emergent sexuality as well as her simplistic and childish disgust for sexuality. James McAvoy does very well- he gives us a Robbie filled with resignation and determination and handles one sequence in which his character slowly goes mad with the effect of war brilliantly, going from determination to disintegration in a slow move which the audience barely captures before it realises. Keira Knightley has at last found a part which exercises her natural hauteur without calling her to emote in her uniquely embarrassing way. Miss Knightley was almost bred for thirties films- she conveys stiffness hiding sensuality brilliantly. Romola Garai also does very well- her poise is affecting as the 18 year old Briony, but more than that her moment of mental breakdown again is handled very well- she gives a sense of the mental chaos within her by effectively turning down life, becoming an instrument rather than instrumental to it. Within her tense face one grasps what it is to have contempt for onesself.
Joe Wright also manages to direct this well- there is some lovely use of typewriting throughout. He attempts to blend his film into the background of the period- there is an effort to capture some of the awkward emotionalism of thirties England and there are some wonderful touches. When Cecilia for example beleives that her brother's friend invited down for the weekend, isn't taking any notice of her charms that she so lavishly displays whilst sun bathing, she petulantly dives into the water. A soldier passing through France comments that if only the Germans could invade Trafalgar Square the British would beat them (reminds one of Bogie's comment in Casablanca that there are some segments of New York he wouldn't advise a Fascist to enter).
Over and above that though the film keeps coming back to this issue- which is a central moral and psychological issue as well- if you do something terrible and what you do has consequences you can see in terms of dead bodies and dead lives, then have you by chronicling it or by living your life as a homage to it attoned for it. What Briony does destroys three lives- it sends a victim off to marriage with her rapist, sends a girl off to leave her family behind and lose her boyfriend to prison and sends that man off to war and prison, losing him all the fruits of adulthood- all his attempts to become a doctor and a good husband. The central issue to the film and to McEwan's book is this- its the question of what price one can pay to have that moment that Briony implicates her brother in law in rape back again. For Briony the suffering lasts right until the moment, which we see, in which she effectively dies. In some ways J.S. Mill's judgement that lifelong prison is worse than death comes back to one- the others all get real deaths, for Briony there is the lifelong prison of her guilt- a prison that will never let her escape the moment when she was thirteen and falsely accused an innocent man.
This is a very good film- its unsatisfying in the way that all unhappy stories are unsatisfying- and its unsatisfying in that neither we nor old Briony on the screen are fully satisfied that she has attoned, and furthermore neither of us are fully satisfied that her life spent in attonement has been worth it. The film leaves questions unanswered, problems unsolved. Very like Priestley's Inspector Calls- also a fine film- it merely asks the question of how far are we responsible for the results of our actions, even if committed partially unknowingly. For Briony that responsibility lasts the whole of her life- and tortures her even on her deathbed- she suffers like the others, though they suffered guiltlessly, she suffers on the wrack of conscience.
Everyone suffers from that decision taken by a thirteen year old, and that decision reverbrates through these lives, doubling and redoubling, having more and more impact as the years go by and Briony's guilt increases and her inactivity increases with it.