You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’, and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
Adapted by Christopher Hampton from the novel by Ian McEwan, director Joe Wright ‘s film begins in the mid 1930s at a bucolic English country estate, jumps to the violence-wracked shores of France during the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation, and concludes several decades later with an interview of the surviving character. Thus it is an epic story centered on the theme announced in its title, one that has theological significance for Christians. The story of Briony’s false testimony that has tragic results for the two adults whom she loves is compelling, one that all of us who have done some injury to another which we wish we could undo can relate to.
Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) is 13 years old when the film begins. She has finished writing a play, which she plans to stage, even though no one else in the large household cares much about her ambition to become a writer. One hot day she is looking out the window and sees her older sister Cecilia ( Keira Knightley) with Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the housekeeper’s son whom the family has sent to a prestigious school. Cecelia has removed her blouse and skirt and dived into the deep pool of a fountain. When she emerges her wet slip clings to her body. Is Robbie abusing her? Briony, upset because she has a crush on Robbie and imagining more than she should, turns away from the window. Then we see the same scene from a different perspective and learn that Cecelia is at the fountain getting water for the flowers in the vase she holds in her hand. Robbie comes up to help, and, reaching for her hand, knocks the vase from it. It smashes on the ledge, part of it falling onto the ground, and a large piece into the fountain. Angry because it is a valuable family treasure, Cecelia starts toward Robbie, but he warns her just before her foot steps onto a shard. She then strips to her slip and plunges into the pool of the fountain. swimming under water to retrieve the lost piece. When she emerges the two stare at each other.
Briony becomes more confused and enraged by jealousy and the desire to hurt Robbie when she reads a letter that he has entrusted her to deliver to her sister. Robbie had written two, one a crude, blunt missive that in the heat of his sexual desire for her in which he has typed the word “cunt.” The other is one of simply declared love. He accidentally puts the wrong letter into the envelope, and it is the one intended for no one else to read that shocks the girl who has but the barest understanding of the meaning of the word.
That night, during a dinner party Robbie and Cecelia fulfill their sexual desire in the library. Briony opens the door, interrupting their tryst. The girl, already upset by the letter she has read, apparently thinks Robbie is molesting her sister. Shortly thereafter she accuses Robbie of a crime on the basis of all the misconceptions about Robbie and her sister that she has acquired. Despite his protestations of innocence and the declaration of love between himself and Cecelia, he is led away by the police. Briony steadfastly maintains her charge under interrogation, and Robbie is convicted and sent away to prison.
Five years later he is in uniform, under fire by the triumphant Germans who have pushed the British army to the shore of France at Dunkirk. As he tells a mate, he was given the choice of joining the army or remaining in prison. Across the channel Cecelia is a nurse in a military hospital. She still loves Robbie, and has received a letter from him in which he tells her that their “story can resume.,” that “I will return. Find you, love you, marry you and live without shame.”
When Briony, now 18 and aware of the terrible consequences of her false witness, comes to work at the same hospital as a nurse, she visits her sister to seek reconciliation. “I am very, very sorry for the terrible distress that I have caused you. I am very, very sorry… “ Cecelia is less than receptive at rebuilding their relationship. At the hospital the despairing Briony says, “No matter how hard I work I can’t make up for what I did.” She is washing her hands at the time, a classic act going back to Pilate’s washing of his hands, though having the opposite meaning.
Briony’s realization of her guilt and of her need for atonement touches us deeply, virtually all of us possessing a knowledge of some guilt and the need to “set it right” or “make up” for past misdeeds. It is, of course, central to an understanding of Christian theology, based on the alleged atoning work of Christ on the cross. It is a theme running through such films as The Mission and The Fisher King, the character in each film filled with remorse for a terrible past misdeed. Viewers will be challenged by the way in which Briony (Vanessa Redgrave) near the end of her life, now decades later a famous writer, believes she has atoned for her betrayal, and thus can live with herself. Is atonement something which we can achieve, or does she (and we) need some special help?
1) Briony has a crush on Robbie, yet she does him terrible harm. How can such young “love” quickly lead to acts that harm the object of affection? Do you think that she fully understands her emotions and what she sees?
2) How does Briony show that she has matured during the five years following her betrayal? Like Lady Macbeth, she vigorously washes her hands: what is the difference between the two? Which of the two have accepted responsibility for her misdeed? How does this show the difference in their character?
3) Another film in which a character is pushed to accept responsibility for past misdeeds is Dead Man Walking. Compare Briony with Matthew Poncelet. Does Briony seem to need a Sister Prejean to convict her of her sin?
4) What resiliency of spirit does Robbie show in his letter to Cecelia? How does she at first lack this when Briony resumes contact with her? In other words, how does Cecelia need to forgive? What could a refusal to do so result in for her life?
5) If you were watching closely, what was the name of the manuscript of the story that Briony’s friend wanted to read? What does the title ( “Two Figures By a Fountain” ) suggest was the origin of her story?
6) What do you think of Briony’s moment with the dying soldier? How does she use her writer’s imagination this time for good? How is this a foreshadowing of the conclusion of the film?
7) What do you think of Briony’s means of atonement? How can her writing contribute to it—how can it be a means of healing? Do you think that Briony is right in her belief that art can provide a means for atonement? Compare this to the way in which Jack in The Fisher King finds atonement. In The Mission atonement comes from the outside: how does Rodriguez find it? Where does Christianity teach that atonement comes from?