If you wish to read my review of Atonement. Go here.
*Major Plot Spoilers Ahead; Read With Caution. The First Paragraph Gives Everything Away!*
In the movie Atonement the character Briony, a 13-year-old, with too much time on her hands makes a terrible decision by blaming the rape of one of her cousins on the grounds keeper Robbie, which separates Robbie and his love Cecilia for pretty much the rest of the film. On the surface it would appear that Briony’s imagination merely gets carried away. She witnesses things from a distance or after they’ve happened that could easily be misconstrued by a young child as terrible and frightening events. We are allowed to empathize with her by the way the story unfolds, first through her eyes, then as the events actually happened. Through her eyes we’re startled by Robbie’s voice as he barks at Cecilia by the fountain and she strips naked and jumps in, seemingly by his order. And then again when she walks in on them having sex. When Briony sees it it’s a terrifying moment, in reality it’s quite funny.
But it’s my belief that it’s not only her imagination at work.
In my review of Atonement I write:
But you would think that a 13-year-old, even as imaginative as this would know better. What is it that truly pushes her to believe what she believes. There’s a short scene later in the film that hints at this, dealing with an emotion that Briony probably doesn’t understand herself.
What is that emotion that I speak of? There are a few key scenes that hint to what it is that Briony is being affected by.
The first comes to Robbie at war as he’s wandering through a field. It’s one of those moments between two people that one doesn’t think much of until later, until something of much greater consequence has happened, until somewhere in the subconscious those two moments become cause and effect. The scene in question has Briony standing over a river asking Robbie if he would save her if she fell in the river. He says, of course. So, she throws herself in the river. And he rescues her. All very romantic in her mind, but he lets loose with a furious rage, telling her how stupid she was to put both of their lives in jeopardy over a game. The thanks that Briony gives is one of confused hurt, but she marches on regardless of the fact that she’s about to weep for being made a fool of.
The second scene is when Briony as a nurse is being questioned by her friend over a type writer late one night as to whether or not Briony’s ever been in love. Briony answers no, but she has had a crush on someone, and she tells her friend about the event that occurred at the river with Robbie.
Imagine a 13-year-old girl with an imagination and a crush on a handsome young man who’s at least 6 years older than she, who finds herself suddenly scolded for having romantic notions about the two of them. Then to find that the boy of her imagination has a sexual desire that is fixated on someone else. To me it sounds like jealousy. It’s jealousy that allows Briony’s imagination to carry through with her story. It’s jealousy that gets her to open up the letter he’s passed on to Cecilia. And finally to put all of the intended pieces together in the wrong way. What if that scene at the river hadn’t happened? Would she have misinterpreted it? Perhaps, but maybe not so boldly.
In the final scene between Briony, Cecilia and Robbie that obvious crush still exists. You can tell by the way Briony attempts not to look at Robbie. And her apology which is delivered with the same forced sincerity that her thanks was given by the river. It’s almost at odds with how she truly feels inside in those moments. If one were to imagine her letting loose and saying what she meant it might be that she passionately loves Robbie. But she can’t. Keep in mind that this scene comes from Briony’s mind, it’s a manifestation of how she still feels as an older woman. Even she doesn’t feel she deserves that love. So what she seeks out instead is a false sense of closure. One that leaves us loathing the character. But if one reconsiders the story as a love never fulfilled from her end, perhaps with a little more sympathy. So perhaps her Atonement isn’t in her apology she never gives, but in the fact that she’s lived the rest of her life alone and unloved, something that for a brief moment in the lives, that even though she ruined, lived between Robbie and Cecilia were able to have.
James McAvoy says something similar in his AOL moviefone Unscripted Interview about Briony, which can be watched here. A fun and enlightening interview. In which he talks about Briony’s need to stay the center of attention. Jealousy indeed .