There’s a period in pubescence, where the mix of hormones and desire blend into fantasy, often healthy. Improperly entertained, these illusions and the psyches that hold them become fragile and subjected to the weight of reality—even dangerous.
It’s 1938 and given the pastoral setting—a sprawling estate in Great Britain where want is a stranger, there exists little to suggest the deep malignancy about to spread. But given a nationality that breaks for tea in the middle of a war, appearances are deceiving.
Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) at 13, has fallen in love with Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), who lives on-site with his mother, a kitchen worker. Briony’s privileged life falls not far socially or geographically from sketches of Jane Austin, composed a century prior. For women, at least of a certain station, little has changed.
Living among the idyll and incurious, Briony distinguishes herself with a love for language and writing, a fertile imagination, drawing upon a staid environment. And perhaps this lack of fodder encourages her to magnify the limited experiences she is left to draw upon.
Her infatuation with Robbie borders on the psychotic. When the mutual affection between he and her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) reveals itself, Briony perceives an infidelity in a relationship that never was.
Robbie’s caste renders him vulnerable to the young woman’s spite. Aided by an unusual confluence of events, she finds herself empowered to extract revenge of the harshest sort, not only upon her would-be lover, but her sister as well.
Bearing false witness, she names Robbie in a crime he did not commit, leveraging the ever-present stigma attached to those of lower station. Slicing the bootstraps by which he was pulling himself up (he hoped to go to medical school), her testimony sends him to prison.
The event pits sister against sister, tearing the family, for whom the event, an alleged rape of a visitor to the estate, presents an inconvenience. Prudence dictates the value of putting this unpleasant event in the past. Cecilia, loving Robbie more than ever, proves to be the exception to this sentiment.
Briony’s subsequent shame, the foundation of the story, nonetheless proves unsustainable as a central element in a medium depending on actions and events. Relegated to serve as a frame, we view the consequences of her actions–the injustice visited upon Robbie. The title issue of atonement and her quest for forgiveness, having little durability, finds itself in the margins, a wise choice by the movie makers.
Robbie, given the option of staying in prison or joining the army, chooses the latter. Fighting in Northern France, he gets separated from his unit. After several days of dodging the enemy, he finds his mates in retreat, huddled by the sea, wounded and dispirited, low on provisions with no medical assistance in evidence.
The man who once anticipated ministering to the ill, must now nurse his own wounds, with little more than what was available to the caveman.
The delicate connection between Robbie’s presence in this purgatorial community and Briony’s quest for forgiveness holds together—the balance a rare and eloquent statement.
Despite being separated by almost a century, Jane Austen’s community hasn’t changed much. The metaphorical bustle in which females still find themselves, and their struggles in its clinch still prove to be very much a factor.
The slim pickings, the dim-witted and smug scions of the well-to-do, among whom women may find an attachment, presents little alternative. To flout convention can only lead to a misfortune for all concerned.
Even if this interpretation does not consciously come forth for the viewer, the story alone presents itself in a most eloquent and engaging manner, resulting in what is undoubtedly one of the best movies of the year.