by Alvin G. Burstein, PhD
This 2007 film begins in pre-World War II Britain. It has two foci of action. One is Briony Tallis, who bookends the film, appearing first as a thirteen-year-old, precociously involved in writing a play, and again, three or four decades later, as an established writer. She is being interviewed about her latest book, an autobiography, which she characterizes as being her last book. She explains the characterization by confessing that her writing ability is being eroded by a series of small, untreatable strokes.
The second focus of action is a struggle by two lovers to reunite. Briony’s older sister, Celia, some five years older, and Robbie, the son of the Tallis’ housekeeper, are star-crossed lovers. Their relationship is ruptured when Robbie is falsely accused of sexually molesting Lola Quincey, a fifteen-year-old cousin visiting the Tallis sisters. The accusation is based on Briony’s insistence that she was an eye-witness of Robbie’s attack on Lola, and her persuading Lola, confused and uncertain, to agree with her.
Briony’s actions have complex determinants. She has misinterpreted some of her earlier observations of Robbie and Celia at poolside as rough sex. She has read—and delivered— a crudely sexual note from Robbie to Celia, mistakenly substituted by him for a more proper apology for his pool-side behavior. She has caught the couple in flagrante delicto after their relationship has become explicitly passionate. And, perhaps centrally, Briony has a crush on Robbie that is unreciprocated. And finally, there are unsubtle reverberations of upstairs/downstairs” in the rush to judgment about Robbie.
The upshot is that Robbie is sent to prison for a term that is commuted when, abandoning his college ambitions, he joins the army and is swept up into the battles that eventuate in the British evacuation at Dunkirk.
We follow Robbie as he slogs through graphic battlefield horrors and struggles to get back home, and Celia and Briony as they pursue separate careers as army nurses.Celia, unable to forgive her sister for her role in Robbie’s condemnation, is waiting, hope against hope, for his return from the war; Briony, finally coming to realize that she has wrongfully accused her sister’s lover, is searching for a means of atonement.
The actors’ performances are compelling. The grit and drama of the battlefield gripping. The graphic evocation of the drama of Dunkirk deeply moving. The device of following Briony and her struggles with guilt from the frailties of youth to those of an adulthood crumbling into brain disorder is remarkable.
There Is a surprising twist in the resolution of the swirling complexities around Briony’s quest for atonement that I will not spoil by detailing. You can find the film on Amazon, Apple + and other streaming sites. It is worth watching.