Atonement is a 2007 film adaptation of the novel by Ian McEwan. The action begins in a 1930s England estate, where a young author and playwright, Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) plans to put on her first play. While Briony waits to begin rehearsing, she spies her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and crush Robbie (James McAvoy) together outside. Jealousy takes hold of her, and Briony makes up a story which irreversibly changes the destinies of all involved.
Vengeance is Destructive
Briony is thrown into a fit of envy and vengeance at the idea of her sister and crush being romantically involved. Although neither her sister nor her friend are aware of her feelings for him, Briony plans to seek revenge on them for double-crossing her, and plans to split them apart for good. What she doesn’t anticipate is that her deceitful words will have far-reaching consequences beyond a simple childish act of payback.
It is only later that Briony realizes that life is not like storywriting — there is no rough draft; you can’t simply erase and redo life if you’re not satisfied with the way it turned out. Vengeance is harmful to both the person seeking it and the target of revenge.
Lifetime of Redemption
Briony, Celia, and Robbie atone for their perceived transgressions. Robbie ends up imprisoned, a social outcast, and eventually thrust into the chaos of war, while Celia leaves her family and its wealth to wait for Robbie’s return. Briony voluntarily forfeits an elite education to work as a wartime nurse, serving those who, in contrast to herself, have been unselfish and given up what they desire for the well-being of others.
But how can one truly correct the mistakes of the past? A naïve Briony attempted to make others pay for what they’d done, but the older and wiser Briony finds herself scrambling, it seems in vain, to recreate the life stories which ceased to exist when she allowed passion and yearning to overcome her.
The Intersection of Dreams and Reality
As Briony becomes more established as an author she vows to reveal the story of how her envy dramatically altered the lives of those around her — this is her final atonement. She tries to make things right by telling the truth and reuniting her sister with her lost love. Yet she quickly finds that time is running out, or has already passed, to redeem herself. Solemnly she realizes that the way she dreamed their lives would have turned out, and the way they actually did, are completely different, and she is the cause of this disparity. The revelation of this reality presents the greatest heartbreak of Atonement, and reminds us all to think twice before we act, lest we later regret what can never be taken back.