3 Stars — Thought-provoking

When we destroy another person’s life by our lies it is difficult to atone for our sins. This is due in part because we are incapable of giving back the days and years stolen from them because of our transgression. But it is also difficult because of the universal experience of needing divine assistance in finding forgiveness, not only in receiving it from the person we wronged but in extending it to ourselves. This is the message of Joe Wright’s Oscar-nominated film, Atonement.

Based on the novel by British author Ian McEwan, the story walks us through the betrayal of a young 13-year-old girl, Briony Tallis (Saorise Ronan at age 13, Romola Garai at age 18, Vanessa Redgrave as an older adult), whose curiosity and jealousy causes her to lie about her older sister’s lover. The consequences are not only immediate but also lifelong as World War II made it improbable that she could ever make things right again. Like ripples in a pond that travel in ever-expanding circles, her lies rippled not only away from her but also back upon her as her life became impaled on the guilt of her deception.

Creatively presented on film with visual and auditory effects that mark the interplay of memories with fantasies, the power of the tale is magnified. Using a manual typewriter in 1935 to hone her skills as a writer, Briony’s imagination becomes both her savior and her demon as it taps its way through her life. Having a childhood crush on Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), Briony has a disturbing reaction when she finds him with her older sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley). This jealous wound turns destructive when she claims to have witnessed him committing a crime that he did not do. This accusation and subsequent arrest takes his life not only from him but from her sister as well.

Struggling to find a way to atone for her sin as she grows into a woman, Briony’s novels explore the deeper sorrows and unfulfilled longings of life. But it is her first and final novel, Atonement, that is her ultimate offering. It exposes both her sin and her longing to atone for the lie that has for so long defined her life. As her fiction expresses her longing to give both Robbie and Cecilia back their lives, this desire proves to be only a fantasy that neither atones for her sin nor restores those she harmed.

Atonement is ultimately a theological term used to describe God’s intervention when we sin against someone. That it requires God’s solution is clearly presented in this film as we realize Briony’s impotent solution is only fiction. For real restoration and forgiveness, we need far more than our wishes and inadequate attempts to intervene.


When Briony opens the letter Robbie sent to Cecilia, it was more than her young imagination could handle. Have you ever had a similar experience? How did you handle it?

The creative use of sound, from the tapping of the typewriter to the buzzing of the bee is masterful in this film. The repeating of scenes that we come to realize are depictions of a novel rather than reality are also masterful. What about this film most engaged you as a viewer?

Why do you believe Briony’s nursing instructor gives her the opportunity to care for a French man in his dying moments? What do you believe this Catholic nun saw in Briony and felt this assignment would help heal in her?

Cinema In Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church on the Mesa. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com.