The opening image is a typewriter. The sound of the typewriter is a recurring motif in the film, even being incorporated into the music. We don’t realize it until the end of the film, but the sound of typing functions as a subtle reminder that what we are watching is not the “absolute truth” as the main character Briony Tallis will later call it. It is Briony’s imaginative reconstruction.
After a friend of hers is raped by an older man, thirteen year old Briony fingers her older sister Cecilia’s lover Robbie Turner. She tells the police inspector, “I know it was him.” The inspector presses her: “You know it was him? Or you saw him?” Briony: “Yes. I saw him. I saw him with my own eyes.” This is a deliciously ambiguous statement. She did see the rapist with her own eyes. But it wasn’t Robbie she saw.
Atonement turns out to be a movie about imagination: seeing things you think you understand but don’t understand. Throughout the film (as with Kurosawa’s Rashomon) we see the same scenes replayed from different (sometimes even fictional) points of view. At various points it is unclear (though, as with Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects, we don’t realize it is unclear until the end of the film) whether what we are seeing is reality, merely one person’s interpretation of reality, a dream sequence, or an utter fiction.
The first line of the film is Briony’s: “I finished my play.” She is excited, but can’t get others to cooperate in the performance and production of the play. So she decides to stick with novels: “If you write a story, you only have to say the word ‘castle’ and you can see the towers and the woods and the village below. But in a play it’s… it all depends on other people.”
After the close of the movie’s narrative, we flash forward to an elderly Briony in present day giving an interview about the story we have just seen. She explains that the story of Atonement must be her last novel. because she has a disease called vascular dementia in which “your brain closes down, gradually you lose words, you lose your memory, which for a writer is pretty much the point.”
Now, Briony’s “novel” is so “entirely” “autobiographical” that she says “I haven’t changed any names, including my own.” She claims it is “the absolute truth” with “no rhymes, no embellishments”. But if Briony is losing her memory, then how can she be trusted to tell the historical truth? And if the story is pure history, then how is it a novel? Shouldn’t we call it a memoir? Not so fast. Briony continues:
“I got first-hand accounts of all the events I didn’t personally witness[…]. But the effect of all this honesty was rather pitiless. You see, I couldn’t any longer imagine what purpose would be served by it. […] By honesty. Or reality.” She was “too much of a coward” to make amends for her false accusations and so she “imagined” the scene, “invented” it. “But what sense of hope or satisfaction could a reader derive from an ending” that told the ugly truth? She admits to changing the facts and giving her character the strength to do what she ought to have done, but says she’d “like to think this isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness. I gave them their happiness.”
This is Briony’s atonement, her attempt to make right the happiness she prevented her sister from having. But notice that the effectiveness of this atonement rests on a paradox. The novel must narrate a happy ending for Cecilia and Robbie while simultaneously confessing Briony’s sin of preventing that happy ending. Briony has to tell the story both as it did happen and as it ought to have happened but did not.
John Mullan gives a nice analysis of this final scene in the London newspaper The Guardian. (He’s writing about Ian McEwan’s novel upon which the movie was based, but his comments apply to the film, too.)
Unlike writers of metafiction, McEwan wants you to identify with characters, to succumb to narrative illusion. For Briony to undertake her “atonement”, her work of fiction must make up for, and confess, the wrong that she has done. In a novel, she can make the world better than it truly is. She can make Cecilia and Robbie survive and meet again. And we must be allowed to believe it.
In other words, the reason Briony’s atonement works (if it does) is that she has made us believe in the love story and feel the aesthetic appropriateness of its narrative conclusion. (Note the ironic symmetry here: like the play from the opening scene, the closing scene reveals that the effectiveness of Briony’s novel “all depends on other people.”) But Frank Kermode seems to give the opposite analysis in The London Review of Books, arguing that we are not supposed to believe the story:
It is, in perhaps the only possible way, a philosophical novel, pitting the imagination against what it has to imagine if we are to be given the false assurance that there is a match between our fictions and the specifications of reality. The pleasure it gives depends as much on our suspending belief as on our suspending disbelief.
But Kermode is using “believe” in a somewhat different sense than Mullan. Mullan argues only that we must be emotionally committed to the story -- that we “identify with the characters” -- not that we accept them as nonfictional representations of reality. So what is Mullan’s point? He is reading Atonement the way postliberal theologians read the Bible.
For modern theologians (both liberals and fundamentalists), the point of Scripture is its representation of reality. Believers must either accept all the Biblical stories at fact value (as do fundamentalists) or they must try to find the philosophical truth behind the mythical stories (as do liberals). But postliberals (and postevangelicals) realize that there is no way to get behind the text. There is no way to know exactly what happened historically and thus there is no way to know to what degree the stories are fact or myth – just as there is no way to know to which bits of Atonement are facts, which are Briony’s false interpretations of facts, and which are pure fictions.
And even if we could know “the absolute truth” about what “really” happened, this would be beside the point. The (historical) truth would, as the elderly Briony says, no longer serve any purpose. (Kierkegaard says much the same thing about the historical Jesus.) But as Mullan points out, this need not imply that we can’t believe the story. For postliberals belief is more a commitment to a form of life structured around the Biblical narratives. We can enter into the story without knowing what really happened. We can, as Mullan says, “identify” ourselves with Christ -- we can let him enact our “atonement” with God -- despite the fact that there are four (incompatible) versions of his life in the four Gospels. Scripture does not mirror the (uninterpreted) reality of history -- it structures our reality and teaches us to interpret history, giving us a “sense of hope or satisfaction”. But it is precisely in this way that Scripture turns out to be true.