It's 1935, and things are hot. England is in the midst of a summer heat wave. Hitler-helmed Germany is rattling its pre-war saber. And the pampered Tallis girls—Cecilia and Briony—both have a thing for the housekeeper's son.
Not that this is common knowledge. Briony is all of 13, and any crush that she has on Robbie, the strapping doctor-to-be who's working as a gardener on the Tallis estate, goes unrequited, even unnoticed. Lithe, angular and pouty, the 23-year-old Cecilia also finds Robbie attractive, though she's reluctant to admit it even to herself. After all, Cecilia is part of the British aristocracy and Robbie—well, his ancestors probably cleaned out her ancestors' chamber pots. So Cecilia makes it a point to treat Robbie shabbily, ignoring him when she can and snapping at him when she can't.
Then, on an especially hot, muggy day, everything comes to a head. After a verbal dust-up with Cecilia, Robbie writes a letter of apology and gives it to Briony for her to give to her sister. The younger sister reads it, of course, and that wouldn't have been so bad if Robbie hadn't put the wrong letter in the envelope. As it is, what Briony and Cecilia—and eventually even Mom and other adults—read is a crude, graphic statement of what Robbie would like to sexually do to Cecilia.
Cecilia takes to this novel method of courtship, and the two decide to get "better acquainted" in the family library.
Briony is confused, appalled, titillated and jealous all at once. So when a 15-year-old cousin named Lola is apparently raped on the Tallis estate that night, Briony points the finger at Robbie—whom she now believes, or wants to believe, is a "sex maniac."
Enter the police. A prison sentence. And the war. Nothing will ever again be the same for Robbie or the Tallis girls.
Let's not sugarcoat this: Briony does a very bad thing. By lying to authorities after convincing herself she saw something she didn't, the 13-year-old sends an innocent man to prison. But as she grows older, Briony tries to make amends. She forsakes college and instead works as a wartime nurse, treating horribly injured soldiers, comforting some as they die. She writes to her sister and asks for a reunion, hoping she can—and here's where the film's title comes from—atone for her sins. Though viewers should question whether her final efforts at reconciliation are enough, Briony at least comes to realize that she has some serious atoning to do.
Cecilia, who starts out snooty and carnal and not all that likable, turns into a tragic, principled heroine when Robbie goes to prison. Convinced of his innocence, she writes to him every day and refuses to go along with her family when they wash their hands of him.
Robbie and Cecilia's love affair begins with dirty words and secret sex. And while that prevented me from longing for their reunion in the way the filmmakers obviously wanted me to, it doesn't prevent the couple from gradually "growing up" in the face of adversity. Cecilia pleads with Robbie to "come back to me." Robbie tops that with a promise to "find you, love you, marry you and live without shame."
Robbie dives into a river to save Briony—after she foolishly jumps in to give him the opportunity to "prove" that he loves her.
When we first see Briony, she's typing the script for a play underneath a picture of a praying woman. Years later, when she becomes a nurse, she works at a Catholic hospital and is supervised by a strict nun. She later attends a wedding in a church where the priest says marriage was, in part, intended to be an antidote to wanton "fornication."
On the beaches of Dunkirk, France, the camera swoops in on a clutch of soldiers singing a hymn.
"Love is all very well," 13-year-old Briony says, describing the moral point of the play she's writing, "but you must be sensible." Ah, if only the characters in Atonement had paid heed. This film isn't as much about love as it is about lust and sex—what they are, what they can lead to and how they can destroy people's lives.
Cecilia slinks about in backless dresses and a one-piece bathing suit with suggestive cut-outs. To retrieve part of a broken vase, she strips to her slip and dives into a fountain. When she reemerges, the camera doesn't shy away from the translucent and clinging fabric.
Robbie's lusty love letter, meanwhile, includes the word "c--t" in its description of its writer's oral sex fantasy.
And then there's the rendezvous in the library, where Robbie and Cecilia have sex while pressed up against a set of bookcases. We see kissing, caressing and hands darting into forbidden places (she undoes his pants)—along with explicit sexual motions. We hear groans and heavy breathing.
"What's wonderful, I think, and what I thought at the time was very clever, is not showing anything," Keira Knightley, who plays Cecilia, told the British conglomerate Orange. "You don't see anything and yet I do believe that it's 10 times more erotic than most love scenes where you see absolutely everything."
Chocolate tycoon Paul Marshall, meanwhile, takes a fancy to Lola. He slithers into a conversation that the teenager is having with her younger brothers, and he offers the girl one of his patented candy bars.
"You have to bite it," he tells Lola with a leer.
Lola appears to be both flattered and frightened by Paul's advances, and the movie insinuates the relationship quickly takes a rough turn. When Briony finds her crying, Lola claims its because her brothers rubbed her wrist raw—but a later conversation suggests it wasn't the brothers who did it. Paul also claims that it was the brothers who scratched his face.
[Spoiler Warning] We ultimately see Paul having sex with Lola. (His bare bottom is briefly exposed in the light of a flashlight.) It's obviously statutory rape, but the film doesn't detail whether Lola wants him to do it or not. Paul and Lola get married four or five years later.
When war breaks out, Robbie is caught up in it. Lost in France with two fellow Brits, he stumbles across a killing field where dozens of school-age children lie dead after being shot. Bullet holes mar their foreheads and cheeks. Robbie himself suffers from a festering wound on his chest that he tries to press together with his fingers.
The beach at Dunkirk, the place from which he and the rest of the British army are to be taken back to England, is the very picture of chaos. Because horses aren't on the evacuation list, they're being shot—point-blank in the forehead: We hear the gun blasts, see the smoke curling from the barrel and watch as the horses fall to the beach. Two soldiers tumble down the beach, locked in a rolling brawl.
Briony, too, sees plenty of carnage in the hospital where she works. One soldier is missing an arm. Another has mountains of stitches running the length of his spine. Another suffers from full-body burns. When she loosens the bandages on a patient's head, we see that part of his skull has been blown away, exposing his brain.
Robbie's mother hammers the hood of a police car with a pole as he is being carted off to prison. Water kills a group of people when it floods a subway tunnel.
Crude or Profane Language
Briony suggests to Lola that the c-word is the most horrible, awful word in the English language. Even today, in our profanity-hardened society, it's one of the few words that still has the power to shock. And Atonement use it to full effect. The word itself is never spoken. But its inclusion in the note which we see being typed and then read by multiple people keeps it in the forefront of our minds for nearly half the film.
Elsewhere there are 10-plus f-words (mostly in one obscenity-laden rant by one of Robbie's war comrades) and one s-word. God's name is abused a couple of times; Jesus' another three times. The British profanities "b-llocks," "b-gger" and "bloody" also rise to the surface.
Drug and Alcohol Content
If you believe the movies, almost everyone smoked in the 1930s. Cecilia is rarely seen without a cigarette in her mouth or hand. Robbie smokes, too, rolling his own cigs. Dinner parties are filled with cigarette smoke and flowing booze. And in Dunkirk, Robbie and his mates launch a quest for something to drink—water or otherwise. We see several inebriated soldiers. An old lady takes a few pills to apparently help her calm down before a television interview.
"Yes," Briony tells the police. "I saw him. I saw him with my own eyes." Only, of course, she didn't.
It is this lie that sits at the heart of Atonement. With those words, the girl cripples the futures of Cecilia, Robbie and, to some extent, herself.
So in a way, Atonement is a little like a sexed-up morality tale, in that it reveals how much every move we make can cause seismic shivers to rattle the future. Cecilia, Robbie and Briony walk step-by-step into bleakness and bitterness, paving their own way with their cumulative actions. Lust begets anger begets lust begets indiscretion begets lust that finally begets a misshapen, mottled lie that threatens to destroy them all.
The result, beyond moral considerations, is that we don't necessarily care that much about Cecilia and Robbie after they're torn apart by the big bad world and the little bad sister. These are watercolor characterizations—pretty but strangely distant and soulless.
Contributing is the fact that beyond Briony's youthful and selfish lie, Atonement doesn't condemn the others' misbegotten behavior, and it even celebrates some of their missteps. The tome-entangled tryst, for instance, is deemed to have sprung from the "clarity of passion." And though Cecilia and Robbie's relationship consists only of a couple of tart exchanges, a lustful letter and that one breathless wrangle in the library, it's apparently enough to birth a lifelong romance. It's as if the movie is saying that lust plus sex plus raunchy writing equals true love.
Reviewers are all atwitter over Atonement. And they do have some reason. It's a well-crafted thinking-man's movie that audiences can mull over well after the credits roll. But it's also a sexually charged, often crass period piece far removed from, say, Keira Knightley's Oscar-nominated work in Pride & Prejudice. It's an adolescent fantasy, unduly romantic and forbidden, where lust masquerades as love and unfulfilled passion is the characters' highest calling.
A postscript: Because Briony is our window to Robbie and Cecilia's world—and because she can't be considered a reliable witness—Cecilia and Robbie's relationship is full of all the "romance" and heartbreakingly unrequited love that a young teenage girl might possibly conjure in her darkened bedroom. Were Cecilia and Robbie meant to be together? Maybe. Maybe not. But in Briony's eyes—too young and inexperienced to know what real love is—their relationship becomes passionate and pure and altogether perfect. No matter that it's shallow and altogether sexual.