January 10, 2008, updated 2011 and 2016 -- This story has a setup which depends on a string of nine wildly improbable coincidences in order to make a bad character seem not so bad. Many people apparently accept these coincidences, but I could not suspend my disbelief to that extent.
The first coincidence is that a young girl (Briony Tallis, played by three different actresses at different points in her life) just happens to look out her window to see her sister, Cecilia Tallis (played by Keira Knightley of “Pride and Prejudice”) take off her dress and go diving in a fountain to retrieve a piece of a valuable vase, while the gardener's son, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy of “Becoming Jane”) looks on. She looks away at just the right instant and thereby misunderstands what is going on.
Later, Robbie Turner writes a private note to Cecilia to apologize for what he said and just happens to put the wrong (x-rated) note in the envelope. Briony gets her hands on the envelope, reads the note inside and again, gets the wrong impression. Later, Briony just happens to walk in on Cecilia and Robbie having sex in the library, and again, unlikely as it seems, gets the wrong impression.
Later, Briony just happens to stumble upon two more people having sex on the grounds of the massive English estate where she lives, and again, gets the wrong impression, this time about who is having sex. She publicly accuses Robbie of raping an underage girl and he is sent away to prison, although he is not the person she saw (technically, this is a crime, like perjury). The girl who was raped coincidentally, doesn't know who raped her. This string of coincidences (and there are more I haven't mentioned) is like a house of cards. Pull one of them out and the whole plot falls apart.
That is a lot of coincidences. The purpose of all these coincidences is to make Briony look less evil than she really is. However, part of the story is about Briony dealing with the guilt of what she has done, so using a lot of coincidences to decrease her apparent guilt weakens that part of the story.
Here is the real shocker: We are actually supposed to believe that Briony, a girl with the worst powers of observation in the history of mankind, who misunderstands everything she sees, and seemingly has no grasp of human nature at all and no grasp of the damage words can do, later becomes a renowned author! Give me a friggin' break.
At the end of the film there is another shocker, Briony, now played as a dying woman by the venerable Vanessa Redgrave, reveals that she is not telling us what really happened to Robbie and Cecelia at all, she is just making it all up, as if making up a story can expiate her criminal actions. This is the very essence of phony atonement. There is a different narrative, previously not mentioned, that is the “real” story. Maybe the real story was better than the one she made up, but the real story is never revealed.
This is like somebody telling you this wild story. At the end, you say, “Wow, that's amazing! Did that really happen?” The person telling the story says, “No, not really. I just made the whole thing up.” By the way, there is an easy fix for all those coincidences. Briony could just say at the end of the movie that she made up all those coincidences to make herself look less guilty for her crimes. I would buy that.
The story does have some effective dramatic elements. There is a nice scene in which Briony, a nurse in training, gives comfort to a dying soldier during World War II. There are some very impressive big-budget scenes where Robbie and two other soldiers (Robbie got out of prison by joining the British Army) arrive at Dunkirk. The scene at Dunkirk is eerie. It is anarchy at an amusement park. A Ferris wheel turns, a movie plays at a movie theater as soldiers die from a lack of food and water. Men fight and drink what little booze can be found and sing bawdy songs.
It is anarchy, laced with great kindness between Robbie and the two other soldiers who have gone through so much together. It is a remarkable portrait of the madness of war and the comradeship that develops between the men who fight it together. The one intense love scene between Cecilia and Robbie in the library is powerful. The story is a big, loud sprawling string of implausible events, but it is entertaining, more so if you can swallow all those coincidences and somehow learn to love that twist at the end. This film rates a B.
After watching a 2011 film by the same director (Joe Wright) and starring the same woman (Saoirse Ronan) who plays the youngest Briony in this film, I was struck by some similarities in these two films which reveal a pattern I find very annoying. In both these films, innocent people suffer and die because of the actions (or inactions) of young girls who consistently behave selfishly and badly. In both movies, an enormous amount of time and effort goes into rationalizing and excusing the bad behavior of these two young girls.
I have little patience for the enormous conceit of this approach. I much prefer characters who do the right thing, or at least own up to doing the wrong thing, rather than screenplays which make a lot of excuses for their behavior. Both of these films reflect the excessive narcissism of our age. It is all about Briony and Hanna. Nobody else even matters. Good intentions and hand-wringing are unacceptable substitutes for responsible behavior, or at the very least taking responsibility for one's bad behavior. A pox on Hanna and Briony. I don't want to see them again, no matter how cute they are.
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