“I wouldn’t necessarily believe everything Briony tells you. She’s rather fanciful.”
Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), from the beginning to the end of Atonement, is a person whose life is consumed by fabrication. Beyond her interest in writing plays and later, books, her affinity for fanciful stories and archetypal characters bleeds into her real life; Briony manipulates events around her, crafting narratives out of the “characters” she sees as an author would, leading to tragedy for those around her.
Briony writes a play, The Trials of Arabella, inspired by her sister Cecilia and the tension she shares with Robbie, the son of one of the housekeepers on the Tallis estate, and the way she views the dynamic between the two. The characters are the glamorously tragic “Sir Romulus Turnbull” and “Arabella” the social-climbing lower-class man and the woman who abandoned propriety to fall in love with him “It’s about how love is all very well, but you have to be sensible,” she says of the theme of her play. But what is considered sensible, as we see, cannot be unclouded by emotion and values, especially in the mind of a child. There is no objective art, and Briony’s fanciful imagination, her jealousy, her own romantic feelings for Robbie, her immaturity, and the environment in which she is raised, all cause her to tell a lie that is somewhere between a conscious and unconscious fabrication.
She sees things she does not understand and (again, whether consciously or unconsciously) molds them to fit a narrative she has created, in which Robbie is a hidden threat to the household. She ignores, or fails to see, the predatory behavior of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Paul Marshall, for example, because his class does not fit her narrative of what a dangerous person is, despite the fact that he has committed the sexual assault for which Robbie is blamed. She ignores, or fails to see Cecilia’s agency in she and Robbie’s illicit romance because it would corrupt her image of Cecilia, a person whom Briony sees as sensible.
Briony is an unreliable narrator on various levels. She lies as a child, yes, but as it is later revealed, the story presented to us has been to some extent her own fabrication. She manipulates those around her as a child, she manipulates her own story, and we as viewers are manipulated, all in Briony’s mind an attempt to seek the redemption for a lie she told as a child. When she cannot undo what she’s done, she aims, through art, to fabricate a narrative that allows her to cosmically apologize, for others and for herself. But is her story truly a means of atoning or merely a way to live with herself? And how many levels of storytelling can we as viewers accept before a story feels like a lie?
“Do you have to be 18 before you can bring yourself to live up to a lie?”
As a young woman, in an attempt to to redeem herself in her own mind Briony becomes a nurse, helping what are ultimately Robbie’s fellow soldiers, young men. She cannot help Robbie himself, but finds a way to help young men she sees as a stand-in for him. Her concept of penance is shown to be a cosmic one, rather than a direct one. If she can somehow force her good deeds into the world after the fact, the guilt she feels will be absolved. She finds, however, that it is not.
Briony apologizes to Robbie and Cecilia when Robbie returns from the evacuation at Dunkirk, and Briony agrees to write a letter describing the truth of what happened all those years ago. “Write it all down, just the truth, no rhymes, no embellishments, no adjectives. And then leave us be,” Robbie tells Briony. But it is all for naught, as Marshall has married the very same friend of Briony’s he assaulted years ago, another reminder that the past cannot be re-written by well-meaning actions in the present.
Nonetheless Briony’s apology feels like a resolution for her character, the kind we are used to seeing. The viewer takes the “reality” of this scene for granted, assuming it to be true within the narrative; we assume based on experience with stories that every scene in a film is “as true” as any other scene. But that basic assumption is soon ripped from underneath us: an elderly Briony, shown years later as an author doing a television interview, informs the interviewer that the preceding scene did not happen, that Robbie died at Dunkirk, and Cecilia during the Battle of Britain. This revelation is tragic and surprising in its own right but also infuriating in the way it cheats us out of the truth we so desperately need to see Briony confront, and the kind of truth we are accustomed to being shown in film.
We have seen Briony lie to others, but do not expect her to lie to us. We inherently believe that to be a viewer separates us in some manner, and puts us in a position that makes us privy to truth, even in fiction. Atonement breaks that barrier down and complicates its happy ending to draw attention to just how badly we need to believe in stories. “What sense of hope? What satisfaction could a reader derive from an ending like that?” Briony says of the earliest drafts of her book, in which she told the truth of her cowardice, of Robbie and Cecilia’s deaths.
Briony has continued to cling to lies into her adulthood as a means of absolving herself, in any way she can, of what she’s done. Briony has concocted the only solution that can give her solace: to craft a story that allows the characters of Robbie and Cecilia, to have the happiness they would have enjoyed had it not been for Briony’s lie. “He sleeps so deeply,” Cecilia says of Robbie in Briony’s imagined scene of apology, because that’s what Briony needs to imagine to continue to live with herself.
“I cannot escape from what I did or what it meant.”
This film exposes the desperate need the viewer feels, despite our knowledge that this is a work of fiction, to feel privy to truth and justice. One layer of storytelling is satisfactory for us, but to find that Briony’s story is a lie within that fictional story feels like a betrayal, serving a purpose beyond simply being a framing device. Our level of comfort with lying, for one reason or another, is defined by a barrier as thin as that. Robbie and Cecilia’s constructed ending isn’t any more of a lie than the film’s entire story itself- but it feels, somehow, as if it is. Therein lies the effectiveness of Atonement’s ending, particularly in terms of the themes explored throughout and the way they involve us; we are made to judge Briony for the lie she tells to others, then to us, and then must confront that we viewers of film also allow ourselves to enjoy and revel in the beautiful simplicity and hopefulness of a lie. In the end we as viewers are guilty of the same crime Briony is—a longing for events to adhere to an overarching narrative, to see justice done and atonement amount to something despite the harsher reality that in reality, it often does not.
I’d like to think this isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness. “I gave them their happiness.” The subsequent image, of Robbie and Cecilia, happy and healthy, frolicking among the waves on the beach near their seaside home, is beautiful, and had it been presented without the short scene preceding us, would have left Atonement a story of positive acts overcoming the wrongs of the past. But its beauty is undercut, masterfully so, because the scene has been removed from the immersion and trust that persisted throughout most of the film.
It picks at some in the back of our minds that still demands that fiction be presented as true. And through this complex presentation of narrative and layered storytelling, we are left conflicted, heartbroken but hopeful, because the ending Briony tells us is beautiful, but it is also a lie. This blurring of the line between what is “real enough” and what feels like a lie within fiction leaves me thinking every time I watch Atonement, about myself and why I need to tell and be told stories, where immersion and truth in fiction begins and ends for me. Human beings have a remarkable need to seek truth in stories told to us, and stories we tell ourselves. In that way, despite her egregious mistake, Briony’s actions bring attention to this fault. We want to be told a beautiful, hopeful story, and we also need to feel that the story is true. And sometimes those two desperate, profoundly human needs are contradictory.