We have finished our second viewing of Atonement and it is time to begin studying it in more depth. Atonement stays true to the spirit – and the looping, sophisticated structure – of McEwan’s acclaimed novel, a meditation on the power of stories to hurt and to heal. Joe Wright’s film has had a devastating impact on audiences around the world. It is a drama of betrayal and dishonesty and love among the upper classes in 1930s England and it moves from low-budget domestic art house film to the epic of Dunkirk.
The plot I guess could almost seem somewhat routine at first. Briony falsely accuses her older sister Cecilia’s lover, Robbie, of raping her cousin Lola. As a consequence Robbie is arrested and he is convicted of rape and imprisoned. Cecilia totally believes in his innocence. Robbie is released when war is declared in 1939 because he agrees to enlist in the army.
When we meet Robbie in the second half of the film, he is concealing a chest wound from his two corporals. They are all lost amid the British Expeditionary Force’s retreat to the Channel ports in 1940 and Robbie leads them towards the northern French coast. He finds the beach in a stunning scene – as Robbie climbs a sand dune, we suddenly see before him 30,000 British soldiers on the beaches.
The much admired Dunkirk sequence lasts only just over five minutes but it penetrates the brain. French officers shoot their horses on the beach, drunken British soldiers lie in the gutters, cursing. Wright gives the viewer an uncensored view of events.
We see Robbie’s black corporal walk further to a shattered seaside bandstand where British troops – many of whom are wounded, their uniforms bloodied – are singing the hymn “For All The Saints, Who From Their Labours Rest.” This is a change from Ian McEwan’s book where there is only a reference to “the feeble sound of a hymn being sung in unison, then fading.” In the film Atonement it is a magnetic scene, a symbol of courage in war that gives this film a real dignity.
The audience is led to believe that Robbie makes it back to England and is reunited with Cecilia. Briony turns up at their south London flat to apologise, offering to go to court to admit her lie. We are told that Lola’s husband Paul Marshall was the rapist. We have to wait to the very end to learn from the old and dying Briony that her novel version of the Robbie-Cecilia reunion does not represent the truth. She wished them to be together but, in truth, Robbie died of septicaemia at Bray Dunes, Dunkirk, on June 1, 1940 and Cecilia was killed in the bombing of Balham Tube station four months later.
“The age of clear answers was over,” declares the elderly Briony. “So was the age of characters and plots … Plots were too like rusted machinery whose wheels would no longer turn … It was thought, perception, sensations that interested her, the conscious mind as a river through time…” It is this idea that makes Atonement, one of the most successful portrayals of dishonesty, war and love.