How far must one go to atone for a wrong done in childhood?
In 1935 England, a thirteen-year-old girl named Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) misinterprets a couple of encounters she witnesses between Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), a servant, and her sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), which–when mixed with adolescent jealousy–culminate in a false accusation that sends Robbie to jail. Almost five years later, given the choice to stay in jail or enlist in the army, Robbie enlists. Shipped out to France, he ends up joining the mass evacuation at Dunkirk. Meanwhile, on the home front, Cecilia and Briony have become nurses. For Briony, who could have gone to Cambridge, this is part of her atonement for her lie.
The lengths that she goes to in order to give her sister and Robbie the life together that they deserve is the crux of this movie. Of course, the question remains: is it enough? Can it ever be enough? I do not know. But for an elderly Briony (Vanessa Redgrave), it is the only thing she can do, and so it will have to do.
I did find some of the stylistic techniques used in the beginning of this film, such as the jumps back and forth in time and place (most particularly when Robbie realizes that he gave Briony the wrong letter to give to her sister), called too much attention to themselves as techniques, making me feel as if I were watching a movie, instead of experiencing it. Also, the sound of a typewriting should never be used in a soundtrack. Ever.
On the plus side, the acting, though reserved (it is set in England, after all), feels natural. We can feel the passion under the surface of Cecilia’s and Robbie’s cool demeanors. And the look of the film is lush and beautiful, even when the horrors of war–such as wounded soldiers being brought back from the front–slide across the screen.
As for the climax–well, it culminates as it must. Here the director, Joe Wright, does not resort to camera trickery, or even scenery, and the result is all the more powerful for it.
Finally, one anachronism: Robbie plays two arias from La Boheme while composing an apology letter to Cecilia, but the particular recording that he plays (with Jussi Bjorling and Victoria de los Angeles in the title roles) would not be released for another twenty-one years.