Joe Wright’s 2002 feature film ‘Atonement’, based on Ian McEwan’s 2002 critically acclaimed novel of the same name, masterfully adapted for the screen by Christopher Hampton, is at its heart about language and its power; about the way a lie told by a child – inspired by a letter not intended for her eyes – changes the lives of those who hear it; and how that child later longs to make things right again, to restore the indolent simplicity of that summer afternoon through the innocent sound of clicking keys.
The letters comprising the word appear one after the other on the big screen as if typed on a typewriter, and are thus imprinted on the minds of the audience as confirmation of both the overarching theme and literary nature of the story that is about to unfold. Opening in pre-war England, 1935, on the hottest day of that year, the story begins with Briony (here played by Saoirse Ronan), a 13 year old girl, sitting at the typewriter in her affluent family’s country mansion, having just finished a play entitled, The Trials of Arabella.
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The play is intended to be performed by her and her young cousins that evening for the enjoyment of her family and honoured guests. Events that day take an unexpected twist when Briony witnesses her sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley) savagely remove her clothes and dive into the garden fountain in front of family friend, Robbie (James McAvoy). Cursed with an over-active imagination, Briony misinterprets what she has witnessed (a minor quarrel between Cecilia and Robbie), leading to salacious thoughts and gossip.
This is exacerbated when Briony later intercepts an erotic letter written by Robbie, intended for Cecilia’s eyes only. Further confusion is created when, later that evening Briony discovers Cecilia and Robbie in a passionate embrace. With Briony’s confused mind already at fever pitch, the night’s drama reaches its apex when she discovers her eldest cousin in the aftermath of being raped, her unidentified attacker disappears into the night. In Briony’s mind’s eye, there can only be one person guilty of the crime, ‘sex maniac’ Robbie.
With a false (or rather disingenuous) sense of confidence that this is the case, Briony relays the incident to family and police who accost the accused accordingly. Five years on and Robbie is at war in France, just prior to the Dunkirk evacuation. Granted parole for joining the infantry, yet relegated to private due to his criminal record, Robbie heroically guides members of his company to the evacuation area, amid traumatic scenes of the aftermath of war, where they await departure. Meanwhile, both Briony and Cecilia have joined the war effort in a more gender specific capacity: as nurses.
However, the sisters are miles apart (emotionally as well as geographically) and nursing in different hospitals tending on wounded soldiers returning from France. Cecilia seems to be at peace in her new role, which now gives her life a sense of meaning and purpose. Conversely, Briony (now played by Romola Garai) is riddled by guilt and immerses herself stoically in her work as form of self-flagilation. As the war draws to a close, old relationships can be rekindled as Cecilia and Robbie are reunited and form a covert relationship once again.
Motivated by strong feelings of guilt and a need for atonement, Briony goes in search of Cecilia to come clean about what really happened that fateful night. Upon finding her sister and Robbie living together, and coming clean to the pair, the process of reconciliation can begin, or so it seems. The film then suddenly shifts forward in time to 1999, where an elderly Briony (Vanessa Redgrave) is shown being overcome with emotion and memory.