The story beings [warning: spoilers ahead] with a British family of affluence having a summer get-together. Of the family, the only characters that really matter are 11 year old Briony Tallis, and her older and mature sister Cecilia (played by Keira Knightley). Both of these girls (at the time) are in love with the same man: Robbie, who is played by James McAvoy. Robbie, for his part, is in love with Cecilia. Briony is naturally jealous of this fact.
It is this jealously that colors her perception of everything that happens during that day. She first sees Cecilia partially undress in front of Robbie. She is then asked to deliver a letter to Cecilia by Robbie. Naturally, she reads it and finds that the contents of the letter (mistakenly sent by Robbie) are, well, rather uncouth. Thirdly, she sees Cecilia and Robby making love. I need to stop there because at this point, Briony has convinced herself that Robbie is a sex maniac/addict/pervert. She had done so for three reasons: 1) She does not know all the facts surrounding her observations. 2) She is too young to understand what is really happening, even if she had had all the facts. 3) She wants to believe that Robbie is a pervert. After all, in her mind, only a pervert wouldn’t choose her over Cecilia.
At the end of the night, some of the other guests of the estate go missing and a search is organized. Briony is part of this as well and happens upon her cousin (who is clearly underage) engaged in sexual activity with an older man. Briony immediately thinks something is wrong and tells her mother about it who, in turn, calls the police. Briony is then questioned by the police as to who her cousin was with. She, even though she was not sure and did not get a good look, positively identified Robbie as the perpetrator. He is then arrested and eventually sentenced to prison. Cecilia, of course, is crushed.
The movie then shows the characters approximately five years later, during the second World War. Cecilia and Robbie are permitted to see each other at least once before he is sent to France as a soldier (his only way of getting out of prison before his sentence was up). Briony takes a punishing job as a nurse, as you can probably guess, for atonement of her transgression against Robbie.
There are some more plot points but let me skip to the end, lest this review run entirely too long. The end of the movie is an interview between Briony as an old woman and a literary type. Briony has become a successful writer and her latest (and final) book had detailed the story of herself, Cecilia, and Robbie. But it was only partly true. In the book, she wrote of the war ending and Robbie and Cecilia getting back together-a happy ending of sorts for them, especially as they are given an opportunity to essentially tell Briony off. In reality, however, Robbie dies in France from illness and Cecilia is killed during a bombing attack. They never have the opportunity to be together again. What the elder Briony says about this discrepancy, however, is what I think gets to the heart of the movie. She said that she couldn’t have written the book without inserting the fiction because the story wouldn’t have been right otherwise. That the story was more true with the fiction than without it.
And that, I think, is a very true thing. Fiction not only enables us to tell better, fuller, and more satisfying stories but it also enables us to get closer to truth. And because of those two attributes, it may be the case that it’s better to believe in the fiction rather than the “real.” C.S. Lewis’ Puddleglum talked about truth in this way in The Silver Chair:
“Suppose we have only dreamed or made up, all those things-trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.”
I think that is what Briony was trying to say. I could have written the story without the fiction but the story I wrote licked reality hollow. And that attitude not only made her book better but the movie as well because it showed us what a poor world we would live in if we had not the privilege of fiction. Atonement is a fine film and is heartily recommended by this reviewer.