I want to go in front of a judge and change my evidence.
— Briony Tallis (Romola Garai)
The most dramatic moment in Atonement is set on the beach at Dunkirk. It’s 1940, and Private Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) and two comrades, fluky survivors of harrowing inland combat, have found their way over a grim landscape of corpses and shadows to the shore. As the British troops prepare for evacuation, the three lost souls watch and stumble, the camera rising and falling and winding its way through the bustle, a single four-minute take that emulates Robbie’s combined wonder, hope, and exhaustion.
The Dunkirk shot is surely virtuosic, suffused with grey light and picking up, one by one, a series of weary, filthy soldiers, conducting the business of war. But it is also isolated, standing out from the rest of Joe Wright’s film for its ostensible reference to a world beyond the Masterpiece Theatre-style hothouse inhabited by its protagonists. Prior to the war, Robbie was the maid’s (Brenda Blethyn) son, observing her employers, the Tallises, with a mix of envy and lusty desire. This last is especially directed at eldest daughter Cecilia (Keira Knightley), her backless gowns accentuating exquisite shoulder blades. Though she returns his unspoken affection — in coy glances and competitive quips — their class difference seems a looming nuisance, except that another sort of trouble intervenes first.
This would be Cecilia’s 13-year-old sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan), aspiring playwright and self-appointed moral arbiter. When she mistakes yet another petty competition between Cecilia and Robbie for an affront against her sister’s honor, Briony determines to protect her sister. Robbie further drives her sense of a mission by writing a mock apology to his secret love that includes “the worst word in the world” (the c-word, typed and highlighted as Briony sneaks a look at the note he never meant to send, but handed her to deliver, by fateful accident). A last-straw glimpse of her green-gowned sister splayed up against the library shelf while Robbie presses up against her in passionate throes sends Briony into a spasm of vengeful protectiveness, shaped into a frankly astounding fiction.
This lie — which may or may not be known as such to the traumatized Briony — stops short the grand cross-class love affair and gives rise to various atonements, undertaken by too many characters. Most plainly, it jumpstarts the wannabe writer’s devotion to her work, the greatest instance of which will be the film’s story (the film insists that you notice her writing by adding a typewriter to the soundtrack at key moments). As it tracks back and forth in time, the movie gestures toward an ostensible “truth” that will eventually out, concerning not only Briony’s zeal for the storytelling practice per se, but also her use of it to make order of chaos and make right what’s wrong. (The very familiarity of this story undoes it.) Briony’s particular wrong ensures that Robbie will go to war, instead of medical school as he had hoped, and so breaks off his romance with Cecilia most violently.
On the frontlines, he spends long minutes missing his lost love and lamenting his bad fortune in suitably dreadful surroundings. His cheeks increasingly meaningfully gaunt and his eyes sinking into heir dark sockets, Robbie is plainly the film’s most honorable victim (as the movie rather loses sight of a rape victim), devoted to his perfectly posh one-time lover and the fantasy that she represents.
Robbie’s sincerity helps the movie forget the class conflict, and concentrate instead on rapturously soapy close-ups and deeply shadowed interiors. It also complicates, at least superficially, a general anxiety over sex and sexual desire, and the attendant atoning. His is the good kind, measured plainly here against Briony’s (she feigns drowning to get his attention and he so very rightly puts her off, as she’s 12) and that of another man, the reprehensible pedophilic and lip-licking chocolate bar magnate Paul Marshall (Benedict Cumberbatch).
But still, Robbie and Cecilia’s primal-ish scene does its damage, and Briony, the writer, finds her way through and around it in her so-called art, producing the text that unfolds before you now. Briony’s own guilt is manifested in her several efforts to do right, including her wartime service as a bedpan-cleaning nurse (here she’s gown up to be played by Romola Garai), following more or less in Cecilia’s terminally righteous footsteps. Though her sister essentially stops speaking to her, Briony continues to write her long and breathless letters, expressing her grief and remorse, hoping for forgiveness. The fact of the war rather makes all this personal anguish trivial (if it weren’t already), and the film does gesture toward that point.
But Atonement, for all its formal dressing up as cinema (by way of literature), is thoroughly invested in its less ethereal melodrama. This suggests another sort of class conflict, not addressed as such, but filtered through all the devices — the a-chronology, the typewriter soundtrack, the so-very elegant Britishness of the surfaces. This makes the wartime events — in their own way, the story’s most immediate and most resonant — fall by a wayside. The lingering deaths of soldiers and the lost causes they embody serve as tragic backdrops to the less compelling plot points embodied by Briony and her characters. The lovers mourn their crossings (Robbie gazes sadly on a photo of a beachfront cottage where he means to pledge his troth to Cecilia; Cecilia pops up in starched nursey uniform to meet with her beloved One More Time) and the artist insists on her powers of creative revision. Neither story seems to comprehend the World War that provides its context.