Atonement a.k.a. “Espiazione,” “Kefaret,” “Sovitus,” “Expiación, deseo y pecado,” “Reviens-moi,” “Abbitte,” “Desejo e Reparação,” “Exileosi,” “Expiação,” “Expiación, más allá de la pasión,” “Expiation,” “Försoning,” “Kapara,” “Lepitus,” “Pokajanje,” “Pokuta,” “Soning”
Reviewed by: Ben Tabberer
2 hr. 10 min.
Year of Release:
December 7, 2007 (limited); UK: 7 September 2007
Sexual Abuse of Children—Go
I think I was sexually abused, but I’m not sure. What is sexual abuse, and what can I do to stop the trauma I am facing now? Answer
Does God feel our pain? Answer
Why does God allow innocent people to suffer? Answer
What about the issue of suffering? Doesn’t this prove that there is no God and that we are on our own? Answer
What kind of world would you create? Answer
Love and sex
How can I deal with temptations? Answer
Should I save sex for marriage? Answer
How far is too far? What are the guidelines for dating relationships? Answer
What are the consequences of sexual immorality? Answer
Answers to life problems
“Joined by love. Separated by fear. Redeemed by hope.”
A T O N E M E N T. 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’s 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, sat at the typewriter in her affluent family’s country mansion, having just finished a play entitled, “The Trials of Arabella.” The play, we soon learn, is intended to be performed by her and her young cousins that evening for the enjoyment of her family and honored guests. Events that day take an unexpected twist when Briony sees her sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley) strip off 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 still when later that evening when she walks in on Cecilia and Robbie in a passionate embrace. With Briony’s confused mind already at fever pitch, the nights drama reaches it’s apex when she discovers her eldest cousin in the aftermath of being raped, as we see her unidentified attacker disappear into the night. In Briony’s mind’s eye their can only be one person guilty of the crime, that is perceived “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, we discover, 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, we discover that 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 for a need for atonement, Briony goes in search of her 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 can it?
While bearing many of the features of a classic period drama, “Atonement” does have some content that could offend Christian audiences as well as sensitive viewers. There is some foul language uttered by certain characters including a few instances of the f-word during the war scenes. The c-word is also displayed in writing in the scene where Briony reads the erotic love-letter. The Lord’s name is also taken in vane on one occasion.
Aside from the bad language, there are also a few highly sexually charged scenes, the foremost being the rape scene. While we only see the aftermath of this, it is nonetheless as unpleasant as one would expect. Secondly, there is a scene where we see Cecilia emerge from a fountain with her under-garment wet and transparent. The other is the scene where Robbie and Cecilia are in the throws of passion in the library, and it is clear that they are in the early stages of intercourse. That said, both of these scenes are tastefully done when compared to how some contemporary film handle such scenes, and there is no real nudity to speak of. There are also some gruesome post-war scenes where soldiers injuries are displayed in a particularly graphic manner, and a disturbing scene where Robbie encounters a massacre of French schoolchildren.
“Atonement” is brimming with relevant spiritual issues, although the treatment raises more questions than answers. Etymologically speaking, the word “atonement” derives from an Anglo-Saxon hybrid of the words “at” and “onement” which rose to prominence in the theological vernacular courtesy of William Tyndale. When Tyndale was writing the English Bible in 1526, he was looking for a word that would convey a more subtle theological nuance that the word “reconciliation” so as to also comprise the ideas of God’s forgiveness and propitiation. Amid this search, the word “atonement” was born and has remained an integral component of theological language and thought. However, although the pervading theme of the movie (and the novel) is ostensibly atonement, whether the director and screenwriter effectively convey the subtle nuances of the term through the story is open to debate (in some ways the story could have more fittingly be called “Reconciliation”). What can be said though is that the theme of atonement is only one amongst many that are explored here. The themes of guilt, shame and anger are also probed in a profound and thought-provoking way. While these themes are dealt with in an intellectually and philosophically satisfying, the supposedly overriding theme of atonement is dealt with in a way that is theologically troubling to those familiar with the biblical concept.
The central protagonist spends the last third of the film attempting to atone for a specific sin. This attempt is essentially made through a process of self-flagilation, which even a casual reading of scripture will show to be doctrinally wrong. Further more the end product of this desire for atonement is to be found in a novel written by the protagonist in which she re-imagines the history of the two lovers whose lives she ruined by giving them a fictitious happy ending. The New Testament makes it abundantly clear that it is Christ who made atonement for us, and that we cannot make atonement for our sins in and of ourselves. However, in the final scene, the protagonist appears to be vindicated by this “final act of kindness.” The concept of atonement is after all a Christian one and the fact that the idea of true atonement is never explored leaves something of a bitter taste in the mouth.
However, theological nit-picking aside, I have nothing but praise for “Atonement.” Make no mistake this is filmmaking par excellence. The cinematography is sumptuous, at times breathtaking; the acting excellent (Knightly and McAvoy have never been better); and the script tight. From what little I managed to read of the book before viewing the film, I found the adaptation to be faithful and evocative of the writing, the lyrical poetry of the book was replaced by the visual poetry on screen and the complex narrative was handled expertly in the editing. The characters were given a complex texture and the patience of the viewer is slowly rewarded as we see the story masterfully unfold. A harsher critic might say that at times some of the dialogue seems a tad anachronistic and the cinematography a little too much like a fragrance commercial, but there’s really very little to fault this film in terms of technical expertise, and we can expect Oscar’s aplenty come next spring. A real triumph of British cinema.
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.