"The wages of sin is death", reads the book of Romans, but in the case of Atonement's central character, Briony Tallis (Saorsie Ronan), death would be preferable to the lifetime of guilt she experiences after a single foolish decision as a petulant thirteen year-old. Atonement's thematic core is the permanence of acts of sin and acts of narrative: once a word is spoken it cannot be then unspoken. The film opens with the clicking of Briony's typewriter keys - a sound that is thrust into the viewer's consciousness by serving as the percussive undertone for much of the film's score - as she prepares to put on a play for her family. This first shot is prescient; Briony's toys are arranged too neatly to be childish yet too present to be adult. This juxtaposition of childhood foolhardiness with adult sensibilities underscores Briony's fatal flaw: she is too precocious for her own good, unable to reconcile her desire to be grown with her youthful shortsightedness on adult complexities. After all, she has a crush on Robbie (James McAvoy), the educated son of her family's housekeeper, who is roughly a decade her senior and clearly considers her a little sister.
Director Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice) deftly alternates between Briony's point of view and that of her older sister Cecilia (Kiera Knightly), establishing early on a sense of the unreliability of perception that can lead to rash decisions and quick judgements. Briony witnesses two instances of romantic tension, one near a fountain in which Cecilia undresses to retrieve a broken heirloom from the water, and later the couple's impromptu lovemaking in the library. But it is a mistakenly-sent, erotically-charged letter that she intercepts from Robbie, and a single word: "cunt", repeatedly flashed onscreen, that holds her imagination hostage. She misconstrues the events as proof of Robbie's aggressive sexuality and a betrayal of her delusion of romance with the older male. In turn, when her cousin Lola is found raped on the estate grounds later that night she accuses Robbie, presenting the letter as evidence that, along with the solemnity of her account - "I saw him with my own eyes" - is enough to send him to prison and change their lives forever. Of course, the implication that an innocent man is convicted is that a guilty one walks free. Her crimes are compounded.
Wright plows breathlessly through this first act, and subsequently fast-forwards four years into the middle of World War II; Robbie has enlisted in order to gain release from prison in what is essentially a frying pan to the fire move. There are no war scenes, per se, in the film, but Wright does not shy away from showing an occupied France that is undeniably bloody. Much of the film's second act is alternately concerned with Robbie's tumultuous attempt to survive the war and return to Cecilia, and Briony's attempt to make peace with her estranged sister - and ultimately, herself. Briony (now played by Romola Garai) has become a nurse to assuage her guilt. She cleans bedpans as an act of contrition, wearing the red cross of her nurse's uniform as a self-flagellating Hester Prynne. By the film's final act, Briony (Vanessa Redgrave), aged and defeated and fully reconciled to how utterly and completely her betrayal has sold them all out, discovers that the price of honesty can be just as devastating as that of deception. The three actresses playing Briony at various stages of life do a remarkable job of creating a single, cohesive character. If the eyes are the window to the soul then her guilty conscience is ever evident behind her piercing blue irises. It is in the culmination, not the process, of her decades-long attempt to tell the story of her life that she gains her atonement. Or does she? The film's brief final act is a viscerally-affecting meditation on the inescapability of guilt.
When Robbie and Cecilia are temporarily reacquainted in the middle act, it is apparent how strained the effects of past events have made their relationship. As couples converse freely around them in a restaurant, the two struggle for even a few sentences. There are no words to account for what has occurred. The tension is even more pronounced when the couple is finally and briefly in a room with Briony again for the first time since the night of Robbie's arrest. There is no penitence to be made because the damage has been done. Wright uses the literal and metaphysical separation of the couple as a microcosm of the divisiveness of war (or perhaps it is vice versa); war, like deceit, tears families apart. Twice in the film - during Robbie's arrest and later at the end of a military leave - the couple is separated while one is forced to watch the other driven away. During the first of these two scenes, Briony watches from the upstairs window as the police take Robbie away, the weight of her crime setting in. Here, the image of Saint Matilda through which Briony watches these events unfold is a subtle dual-purpose allusion to the Saint's patronage of falsely accused persons and in reference to the central character of Hilaire Belloc's poem, "Matilda Who Told Lies, and Was Burned to Death".
Wright makes the film harder to watch by making it so beautiful to look at. Kiera Knightly, an actress I normally find quite one-note, is elegant and subtle, and McAvoy's understated charm makes us believe why she would fall in love with him despite their class difference. There is a passionate sensuality in the visual presentation of early scenes, from the pastoral lure of the English countryside to the way the blue of Robbie's eyes and the green of Cecilia's dress are oversaturated. Their romantic encounter is shot as close-ups of lips and skin, of heightened breaths uninterrupted by music; it is the only such meeting we are privy to, making the separation that follows all the more intensified. Seamus McGarvey's cinematography - along with Dario Marianelli's Academy Award-winning score - imbue the film with a grand emotional scale; Wright balances the film as equal parts nuance and epic, rivaling period romances such as Titanic and Gone With the Wind. Near the middle of the film there is a nearly five-minute single, unbroken tracking shot featuring hundreds of extras that follows Robbie along the chaotic beach at Dunkirk that is one of the most gorgeous feats of cinematography I've ever seen, such that you cannot help but marvel at its beauty despite the ugliness of what is onscreen.
That discrepancy is ultimately what makes Atonement work so well. We are struck by how beauty and tragedy can exist simultaneously. We know given its trajectory that the film cannot have a happy ending, so what is left in the final few minutes is a challenge to consider the implications of words and the crushing power of guilt. If a single word can ignite a spark, and a sentence can fan the fire, can the telling of the whole story be enough to douse the flames of a guilty conscience?