‘’Liar, liar…’’: The analysis of lies in the movie “Atonement”

Photo credit: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Atonement-DVD-Keira-Knightley/dp/B004JRQ108

The movie Atonement is based on Ian McEwan’s namesake novel. It is widely considered as one of his best novels. Atonement beautifully depicts the strength of the ‘’butterfly effect’’ by almost immediately introducing the story’s focal point which depicts 13-year-old Briony Tallis witnessing a series of events involving Robbie (son of Tallis’ housekeeper). Her poor interpretation of those innocuous events had detrimental consequences. These consequences are worthy of further analysis. However, let us first familiarize with the plotline of the film.

As it was previously mentioned, the story opens with young Briony Tallis in 1935. Briony is a 13-year-old girl from a wealthy English family. She is known to be an aspiring author, growing her talent at quite an early age, thus it is not complicated to comprehend her vivid imagination which will become her curse. On the hottest day of the year Briony sees her sister Cecilia in the garden with Robbie. She misses the moment when Cecilia walks into the garden with their precious vase with flowers, drops it because of Robbie’s chivalrous attempt to fill the vase with water from the fountain pool, and only sees Cecilia in her drenched garments emerging from the water while Robbie is facing her as she steps out from the fountain pool. Later that same day remorseful Robbie is writing an apology note to Cecilia.

He writes several notes expressing regret and asking for forgiveness, except for one in which he finds himself in a puerile mood and writes a sexually explicit note.
Not having any intent to send it to her, he folds it and sets it a side. Soon after, he takes what he thinks is the proper apology note with him and leaves his home. It is not until he sends his note to Cecilia through Briony that he realizes its actual content. Alas, at that point it is too late. Briony runs to her house, reads the note, jumps to conclusions, retells the note’s contents to her cousin Lola and gives the note to Cecilia. Cecilia is utterly flummoxed as she reads the note. Robbie arrives to their dinner party that night attempting to mitigate the situation by explaining his mistake. Cecilia is reluctant but she ultimately forgives him as they begin conversing in the family library. In that moment they both realize their suppressed feelings for each other and engage in love making. Briony catches them in the act but seizes to utter a word. She walks out and so do Cecilia and Robbie. During the dinner twin boys, Briony and Cecilia’s maternal cousins and Lola’s brothers, run away. The search for them is executed immediately. Lola is being sexually assaulted by a mystery man in the process of the search. None sees them but Briony. Although she only spots the man from the back. But that does not prevent her from claiming she has seen Robbie assaulting Lola. Connecting that instance with the scene in the garden, Robbie’s note and the scene in the library, she is convinced Robbie is a ‘’sex maniac’’. As the sole eye witness, Briony testifies against Robbie when asked about the event by the police investigators. Robbie is found to be guilty and is sent to prison. After being imprisoned for four years, he is released on condition to fight in the Battle of France. Cecilia and Robbie are heartbroken by separation, but they keep in touch by exchanging letters for a period of time. Briony tries to make amends with both of them by agreeing to have the legal record rectified five years later but her attempts prove fruitless as Robbie dies of septicemia at Dunkirk on the morning of the day he was to be evacuated, and Cecilia is drowned months later in the Balham tube station bombing. Years later, Briony (now a successful novelist), decides to pay a tribute to Cecilia and Robbie by uniting them in the fictional setting of her book Atonement. She, however, is not given forgiveness even in the written form and she presumably dies with guilt-ridden conscious.

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The reason for Briony’s truth manipulation remains undiscovered. It is debatable whether her intentions were pure or if the more malicious motive was involved. On one hand, her incredibly young age stands as an indisputable fact, and so does her literary oriented mind which greatly tempered with her judgement. On the other hand, one could argue that she was in fact old enough to distinguish between right and wrong, turning the injustice she has committed all the more devious. For we cannot state with complete certainty neither that she was an innocent child who made a foolish mistake, nor that she is a vile and rotten girl who purposively intended to harm lives of two people in love, this whole storyline very much resembles a one large guessing game. Nevertheless, that seizes to prevent us from rationalising her motives in whichever way we find the most agreeable. Since I can only vouch for my own personal opinions I will carefully lay out my interpretation of Briony’s decisions.

Immediately after watching the first half of the film Atonement I received a positive impression of the character Briony. I found her as a slightly atypical 13-year-old lady with a mind full of fancies. Additionally, she was a writer who imagined a great deal of her day to day life. It is practically impossible to put her on the same pedestal as every other person in her position. Although, I do not condone the habit of telling falsehoods I could not help but wonder who did she model this behaviour after? As most of us know, pubescent individuals are incredibly impressionable. They project anything that is presented to them by their peers, siblings and even parents sometimes. Also, it seems fairly obvious that, although she had a very wealthy upbringing, she was lacking the closeness and empathy of a kindred spirit. It is very likely that she felt like an outcast in her own home and perhaps also in her school. This could have possibly given her a push towards a semi-accidental wrongdoing. On another note, she could have simply been sleep deprived and therefore in no position to make sensible decisions since it was very late that night. I was, personally, convinced of the purity of her intentions at the very end of the picture when she said:’’ So, my sister and Robbie were never able to have the time together they both so longed for… and deserved. Which ever since I’ve… always felt I prevented…So in the book, I wanted to give Robbie and Cecilia what they lost out on in life. I’d like to think this isn’t weakness or… evasion… but a final act of kindness. I gave them their happiness.’’ Furthermore, in the novel “Atonement” the character Briony goes on to say that despite the fact she gave them the ending they deserved she could never be so bold to let them forgive her. In these very moments I felt certain that she was one of those people who sometimes stray away from the path of justice but always recompense for their shortcomings in one way or the other. In my mind she is neither good nor evil. She is merely a culpable human being who made a mistake out of sheer hastiness and youthful immaturity. That is something all of us can very well relate to.

In conclusion, it all boils down to your moral standpoint, personal experiences with truth manipulation, as well as your ability to forgive. Whatever the case, we can all agree that the plotline of this film represents an incredible cautionary tale against the faculty of lying, especially about the ‘’life-and-death’’ instances.

Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atonement_(film)
Novel “Atonement” by Ian McEwan