Little toy jungle animals are lined up on the rug. Typewriter keys bang like gunshots. Briony (Saoirse Ronan) is writing a play called “The Trials of Arabella.” It is 1935 England, a dream of a summer afternoon on a sleepy but grand estate and Briony is the much-loved youngest daughter of the house. It feels like the biggest problem she will ever have is whether her young visitors will cooperate in putting on the play. She is already trying to impose her story on people. Briony is more imaginative than perceptive and that will lead to terrible betrayal, when the story she imposes is fictional but its consequences are very real.
Recurring images of threshholds underscore the themes. Briony is on that most vertiginous of borders between childhood and adulthood. She knows the facts of sex and is beginning to sense emotional longing but nothing of physical desire; it all seems disgusting and outrageous to her. She reads a note to her sister and is horrified. “What’s the worst word you can possibly imagine?” she asks her cousin. She considers it a kind of assault. Yet she completely misses the evidence of a real assault right in front of her.
Briony’s sister Celia (Keira Knightley) has a different reaction to the note. It takes her breath away, but the very crudeness that appalled Briony is heady and thrilling. The note is from Robbie (James McAvoy), the son of the estate’s housekeeper whose tuition to Oxford has been paid via noblesse oblige. He seems stalled on a threshhold between working class and upper class, commanded to put on his tux and have dinner with the family of the house while his mother’s colleagues wait on the table, educated enough to appreciate even more keenly those last few steps between him and Celia.
England itself is on a threshhold, the last few years of the world dominance it carelessly assumed would last forever. In these moments of waning summer, director Joe Wright shows us Celia and Briony lying lightly on the grass as though they were floating over endless green fields. But by the end of the evening someone else will be lying heavily on the grass, terribly damaged. Briony has the power to determine who will pay the price for it and out of a combination of jealousy, fear, rage, and misunderstanding, she accuses Robbie. As the world splits open with World War II, the lives of Briony, Celia, and Robbie are spun out of alignment.
Wright’s direction and the highly literary adaption of Ian McEwan’s award-winning novel by Christopher Hampton give this story an epic sweep. One stunning sustained shot as battle-weary soldiers walk across the beach at Dunkirk before the historic evacuation is not just showy — it is necessary to depict the nightmarish and disorienting quality of the images without a break for us to catch our bearings. The sounds in the movie — bees, the typewriter, a match striking, percussive dripping — stand in for McEwan’s descriptive lyricism. The final shift in perspective raises questions about the nature and purpose of story-telling itself, not just Briony’s play or her accusation but the movie we are watching.
Parents should know that this film has some strong language, brief very crude sexual references that are intended to be shocking, some revealing near-nudity, child molestation, and a moderately explicit sexual situation. It includes wartime violence and there are some disturbing and graphic images. Characters smoke and drink. The themes of the movie include betrayal and abuse.
Families who see this movie should talk about Briony’s choices. Did she know she was lying? Why did she do it? Why did she jump in the water? What does atonement mean in this context and did Briony atone? How does the ending change the way you think about the story? Is Briony like the boy who cried wolf? One time or more than once?
Viewers who appreciate this movie will also like the book. And they will enjoy A Very Long Engagement and For Whom the Bell Tolls.