An enchanted summer at an English country estate in 1935. These are idyllic years, but World War 2 glowers on the horizon. Keira Knightley is Cecilia, the eldest daughter of an aristocratic family who falls in love with the housekeeper‘s son, Robbie, as played by James McAvoy. Despite the forbidden difference in social class, they are powerfully attracted to each other, and this leads to an erotic encounter next to a fountain on the estate lawns.
Briony is Keira’s younger sister, an aspiring writer and priggish know-it-all. A child indulged by her family and whose life experience wouldn’t fill a thimble. Her lack of self-awareness, and the secret fact that she also harbors a crush on the housekeeper’s son, makes her shockingly dangerous.
From an upstairs window, Briony sees the encounter by the fountain. She sees Cecilia jump into the water and emerge so wet she appears naked. From the lover’s point of view, it is the first expression of their mutual attraction. But Briony does not understand and sees a jealous vision of sexual perversion. Later, when she reads an intercepted letter and interrupts a private tryst, her resentment grows until she tells a lie that will destroy three lives.
Atonement is a story that begins on gossamer wings.
It now descends into an abyss of tragedy and loss.
To say more about the details would unbalance a plot that’s as delicately calibrated as clockwork. If you haven’t read the book or seen the film, count yourself lucky, and watch this movie with your heart in your throat. We spend the second half wallowing in the mess Briony has made. By the end, we come to realize the full extent of the crime for which she must atone.
There are two scenes in this film which blew me away. Both take place during the evacuations of the British Expeditionary Force in France. In the first, Robbie gets cut off from his unit, forcing him to make his way alone through enemy territory. Exhausted and hungry, he stops in an orchard and picks an apple from a tree. He stops in horror as he then notices the orchard is strewn with dead schoolgirls. The haunted expression in James McAvoy’s eyes easily sealed his reputation as the finest British actor of his generation.
The second is by far “The Scene of the Decade” and one of the great achievements in film history. After Robbie’s agonizing trek from behind enemy lines, he arrives at the beaches of Dunkirk. The camera takes a deep breath, and in a nearly six minute unbroken tracking shot, we follow him through a nightmare of mud, alcohol, despair, fistfights, real horses being shot, men running naked into the sea, soldiers singing a hymn on a bandstand, and the strangely hopeless sight of a Ferris wheel looming over the soldiers waiting to be evacuated back to England. All human life is here, and it’s falling apart.
Still, that nightmare waits only for boats to end it.
The calamity of a young girl’s jealous imagination is fathomless.
The destiny of three people was decided beside the fountain on that perfect summer’s day. A single act of cruelty inflicted by a child. At the end of the film, Briony, now an elderly novelist, confesses in a television interview that a lifetime of writing hasn’t redeemed her.
Then she delivers an ending that will absolutely blindside you.