In 1935, 13-year-old fledgling writer Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) and her family live a life of wealth and privilege in their enormous mansion. On the warmest day of the year, the country estate takes on an unsettling hothouse atmosphere, stoking Briony's vivid imagination. Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the educated son of the family's housekeeper, carries a torch for Briony's headstrong older sister Cecilia (Kiera Knightley). Cecilia, he hopes, has comparable feelings; all it will take is one spark for this relationship to combust. When it does, Briony - who has a crush on Robbie - is compelled to interfere, going so far as accusing Robbie of a crime he did not commit. Cecilia and Robbie declare their love for each other, but he is arrested - and with Briony bearing false witness, the course of three lives is changed forever. Briony continues to seek forgiveness for her childhood misdeed. Through a terrible and courageous act of imagination, she finds the path to her uncertain atonement, and to an understanding of the power of enduring love.
I've been wanting to see this movie ever since I first saw the preview many moons ago. The preview made it look gorgeous, suspenseful, decadent. And also I liked Keira Knightley in "Pride and Prejudice" and James McAvoy in "Becoming Jane". I had bought the book, but had already decided to wait to read it until after I saw the movie. Well, many, many weeks went by before I finally got around to seeing it (and having a friend who actually wanted to see it too) that I was surprised to see it still in theatres, but with all those award nominations, I shouldn't have been surprised.
It was an interesting movie, but not one that grabbed me immediately and dragged me along. It's slow-moving, setting the scene with a series of events that lead up to the climax. Briony is a young, fanciful girl who loves to write and tends to spy and be everywhere at once. Sometimes she sees things that lead her to make conclusions based on her own limited knowledge of the interactions between adults, and that is the case when it comes to Robbie and her sister C. That, along with her reading a letter that Robbie mistakenly gives for Cecelia, prompt Briony to tell a horrible lie that tears lives apart.
The acting is amazing, hypnotic in a way. It's hard to explain unless you've seen it, but there are pauses, just moments when the characters are still, quiet, thinking, sometimes with the underlying turbulence of emotion. There is passionate love, bittersweet and strong and yearning. Then there is the war, and the cruel ugliness of killing and dying. Most of the story takes place in 1930's England, at first at a lush county estate where the rich lead lives of leisure and quite possibly boredom; then to WWII, where Robbie is a soldier and Cecelia is a nurse. Briony follows in her sister's footsteps and also becomes a nurse, and tries to write the truth, the real truth. This is a journey that will take her whole life to complete.
I mostly liked the film, and now I hope to read the book to get a better understanding of it. Maybe watch it again. I've never been very intellectual or geared towards deep, subtle art, but I feel rather compelled to delve more into this story. I'm not quite ready to let it go.
Rating: **** out of *****