One image that I thought was interesting was the way that Cecilia is splayed against the (wooden) bookcases with her arms outstretched in the library scene and this image of her is repeated at the end in her death scene, where she is suspended in darkness, again with arms outstretched, as if crucified. It seemed not only a reference to Christ, and her crucifixion/martyrdom, but that she is nailed to the cross, by love, at the moment she is united to Robbie in the library. At that moment her fate is inevitably sealed, united to his, she becomes a victim and martyr.
It was interesting too that they both die in trapped, underground situations, helpless, hidden, in darkness and isolation, lonely deaths.
There is also symbolism related to blood; the nun tells Briony to wipe the blood off her face (someone else's, a soldier like Robbie). And we see Cecilia dabbing blood off her lip (her own, shed for Robbie).
Cecilia is pressed against a wall of literature...I hadn't really thought about it. Since it's only in literature that they found "their happiness".
Either that or that they are crucified by fiction! And so much wood in the study, like the wood of the cross.
What is quite astonishing has been the almost total inability of film critics on both sides of the Atlantic to (so far) correctly “read” this film. Even those critics who play up their literary pretensions, by claiming to have read the book, (and there are some pompous assholes out there) still don’t seem to have got it.
There is a lot of largely irrelevant chatter about the English class system, which if it exists, as a system, is about money and power, just as it is in the USA. And neither are the Tallis family aristocrats, minor or otherwise. They are simply wealthy. The book makes clear that the family fortune comes from Cecilia’s grandfather who made his money from padlocks and ironmongery. Quite American, don’t you think?
Some critics have helpfully prefaced their reviews by pasting in a dictionary definition of the word atonement: expiation of guilt, reparation for wrong and injury etc. In so limiting the definition, they spectacularly miss the point, by a millimeter.
Try this: In Christian theology the atonement refers to the forgiving or pardoning of sin through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ which made possible the reconciliation between God and creation.
Don’t stop reading; I am not a Jesus Freak or even a regular churchgoer. Ian McEwan is an atheist.
But there is no escaping the fact that underpinning both the book and the movie is a Christian allegory. It’s obvious, and in your face from the beginning, but no one seems to have noticed! Where to begin? Perhaps with a name - Robbie!
Jesus saith unto her, Mary (Magdalene, at the resurrection). She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master.
Also in Mark, twice, Matthew and John.
We learn that Robbie comes from humble beginnings, he wants to become a healer and in the book, at least, he has liberal, essentially Christian, politics. James McAvoy brilliantly portrays him as an empathetic, Christ like, figure, a fact some critics have alluded to.
He is betrayed by a previous admirer. The family close ranks against him to protect their wealth and status. The authorities cannot be bothered to investigate the truth. (Pilate?).
He is, metaphorically, crucified and cast in with the thieves.
Now comes the bit which really annoys me about many critics’ comments – the Dunkirk beach scene. Several have said that this is irrelevant, that it slows up the show, and that it is merely a piece of cinematic showing off.
In fact, this is the catharsis. It is the “Passion” of Robbie Turner. The walk along the beach is his Via Dolorosa. What would they have Joe Wright do? Label the Stations of the Cross? Have him carrying his Cross with a Crown of Thorns? Isn’t it enough that his side has been pierced?
Goodness me, if they still haven’t got it, Robbie rises from the dead in the penultimate scene.
So, what is the book/movie about? First of all, it’s a rattling good love story and a page turner. Secondly it’s about Briony’s, ultimately futile, attempt to expiate her guilt for the crucified Robbie through a fiction – whilst also giving him an afterlife and immortality. It’s about the novelists God- like power over his/her creations and, ultimately, it’s an atheistic message. About how fact can be blurred into fiction through the retelling and rewriting of history. The Bible anyone?
A couple of other things you might have missed in the movie.
Look out for when Briony looks through the stained glass (sic.) window which has the word Matilda on it and then refer to the poem of the same name by Hilaire Belloc.
The operatic duet played as the lovers dress for dinner is O Soave Fanciulla, from La Boheme. Check out the English translation of the lyrics on the net and see just how appropriate they are.
As above: the hymn being sung by the troops in the bandstand at Dunkirk is: Dear Lord and Father of Mankind which is both ironic and sadly appropriate. It is not, as some twit of a so-called critic has said, Men of Harlech
Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.
Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.
The movie being shown in the Dunkirk cinema is the 1938, Le Quai des Brumes. Check out the synopsis.
I'm not a religious person but I like the religious symbolisms in the film. Even James McAvoy said in an interview that Robbie was Christ-like, that he was almost a higher being. I can agree with him being some kind of sacrificial lamb, yes. I think Robbie is a very symbolic character anyway, more than literary.
Another great religious symbolism was Robbie's mother washing his feet. Her only son, and he was about to die. It was one of the most poignant scenes in the movie because it brought Grace Turner back to the story, another character who was destroyed by Briony's lie.
I think the director's choice to include Robbie's hallucination of his mother was very interesting. In the hallucination Robbie envisions his mother, Grace, washing his feet. This is so interesting because the act of foot washing is such a biblical act. At the last supper Jesus washes all of the diciples feet. He has a very interesting conversation with diciples about the act of purification in foot washing. He also explains the act as a sign that no one man is another man's master.
How facinating then, to see Robbie's mother engaging in such an act? She is literally washing away the lie and allowing him to be free. The disparity of the classes is also linked to this foot washing scene. Much of what happens to Robbie is linked to his status in the social spectrum. The fact that he is the house keeper's son, makes Briony's lie all the more believable. Having his mother wash his feet reinforces the idea, which becomes evident later in the story, that we are all equals. Both cecilia and Briony cast off their privelidged status in acts of Atonement.
The water is an extremely important element in this movie, just as it is in our lives. Water is seen as the "universal solvent", which is very true. We use it to clean everything! Water is needed for bathing, laundry, dishes, car-washing etc. Also, when you're sick you're supposed to drink a lot of water because it will help you get clean and well.
In the movie, all the characters use water to try to clean or rid themselves of feelings they are trying to suppress or even express. Sometimes something bad is happening or has happened and the characters are trying to clean themselves of it. Cecilia dives into the water mid-conversation after her brother questions her about why she doesn't want Robbie to come to dinner. She wants to keep her feelings suppressed so she goes into the water. Robbie also takes a bath and we can only guess that he is thinking about Cecilia as well, but likewise at this point he is suppressing his feelings. During one of the flashbacks we discover that Robbie had saved Briony from drowning a few years prior to her accusation. After they are out of the water Briony spills her feelings for him. They had been suppressed until the water "cleansed" her of them.
At Dunkirk (and before) there is a LOT of Biblical symbolism. Robbie, Mace, and Nettle are wandering around France trying to get to Dunkirk, looking for water. In the book they finally find a house and demand the woman brings them food and drink which she reluctantly does. In the movie it shows them in a "large upper room" eating, this compares to the Last Supper. (Matthew 26: 17-30, Mark 14: 12-26, and Luke 22: 7-38) At Dunkirk Robbie and his friends are desperately seeking water and can't find any. They are longing to cleanse themselves from the war just as they are longing to get home. In the end Robbie didn't get any water and he didn't go home. When Jesus was crucified the soldiers offered him wine vinegar, not water, then he died. (Matthew 27: 45-56, Mark 15: 33-41, and Luke 23: 36-43) I think when his mom washes his feet this is also Biblical symbolism. In the Bible, Jesus washes his disciples feet which is a little opposite of what's going on in the movie, but it happens right before Jesus is crucified. (John 13: 1-17) John 13: 10 says, "Jesus answered, "A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean." So, when Grace washes his feet she is cleaning him entirely. Just like Jesus, Robbie dies shortly after his feet are washed. They are also right by the ocean which is the only barrier for them getting home. They need to cross the water to cleanse themselves of the war and be back home.
When Briony becomes a nurse and is sent to talk to the French soldier she gets blood on her face. Sister Drummond then tells her to go wash off her face. I think it's important to note that it was a French soldier because it shows that she also has a part in this war. She didn't just send Robbie off to it. Now she is involved too. It could also be a comparison of: English soldier Robbie who dies in France and now English nurse Briony with a French soldier who dies in England. The movie also shows a scene where she is trying to wash her hands but can't seem to get them clean enough. This is theme of her life. She can never truly atone for what she did.
Two more, Cecilia dies in a flood in the end. I loved how some of you pointed out that she looked like Jesus in this scene and the library scene! So true! Also, at the very end, at the last stage of Briony's Atonement, we see Cecilia and Robbie traipsing in the ocean. This is not only Briony's final attempt at cleansing herself but it is the moment where the Cee and Robbie can finally express their feelings completely. Throughout the entire movie social class, prison, the war, and even time constraints have put a damper on them truly being able to express how they feel. They are now free.
Loved your analysis of the water element. You just forgot to include the founatin scene; Cecilia emerges from it like Aphrodite, she's revealing herself to him as a person ready to love. Water "clears" everything for both of them at the moment, even tough Cecilia still tries to fight her feelings, walking away from him as if she was angry. In fact, the water had revealed so much of her, exposed her in so many ways that she didn't know how to deal with her new emotions.
Like the poster above said, I'm not religious as well, but I love symbolisms. It's interesting to notice all the christian symbolisms in the film, and you came up with some interesting ones. Like when you said that Jesus was given wine vinegar before he died; when Robbie died, he had a bottle of wine by his side.
I suppose I see water as the universal symbol for purification – not only physical (refreshment, cleansing and de-toxification) but spiritual purification. The rite of baptism, for example, involves sprinkling or submergence in water to symbolize cleansing from sin, restoration to purity, and spiritual renewal. As you suggested, there are also many references to water as a purifying, cleansing and transformative agent in Scripture (e.g. Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan, his references to washing the feet in order to cleanse the “whole” person, feet washing scene at Last Supper, water into wine, etc.).
In that vein I saw Robbie’s association with water as generally representing his purity of heart, and his longing for restoration to purity. It’s interesting that he dreams of living on a beach, that Cee gives him a picture of a cottage and that they are represented in perfect happiness there in the final scene. I saw this as representing not only their personal purity, but their desire for a pure, unsullied life, a life without shame. To be cleansed from the filth and evil that has taken over their lives.
When Robbie is in the tub immersed in water his life is still pure, but the dark silhouette of the plane passing overhead symbolizes the journey that he will soon take that will completely change his life and the impending doom of the war.
Water as a Destructive Force
I think water is used to symbolize a destructive force too; in fact I think the two ideas – water as a source of purification/renewal /restoration v. water as a force for destruction and death, are intentionally juxtaposed in the film. (I have not read the book.)
For example, the beach Robbie dreams of sharing with Cecilia – a place where he can live in peace and love, purified of shame and sin -- is contrasted starkly with the beach at Dunkirk, the site of cruelty, chaos, loss and violence, and ultimately death. Here the idea of water as a source of life and renewal is contrasted with water’s association with chaos and death (e.g. Noah and the flood). One his dream, the other his reality.
Similarly I would contrast the Cee and Briony “diving” scenes. Both women have a scene alone with Robbie where they dive into the water. Both are in some way seeking his attention. But while Cee’s action is ultimately an expression of her sincere desire for him, her love, Briony’s action derives from self-love, not sincere love. What she does is destructive toward Robbie; she is manipulating him to test his response to her, to act out a “drama” in her head, and has no regard for the real consequences of her actions. It is manipulative, selfish, narcissistic and controlling. While Cee risks only herself, Briony risks Robbie: she is willing to risk him - and to exploit his goodness - to glorify herself. She is Narcissus, staring into the pool. This scene therefore is pivotal because 1) gives us insight into the “god complex” aspect of Briony’s character that helps to understand why she did what she did later, 2) it contrasts Cecilia’s true love for Robbie with Briony’s selfish “crush”, and 3) it clearly foreshadows later events when she will indeed destroy his life for the sake of playing out the “scripts” in her head.
There is another subtle Biblical reference here because satan, when tempting Christ in the desert, instructed Him to throw himself down for the sake of “testing” God for his own glory. That is precisely what Briony does here, she “tests” Robbie by forcing him to throw himself down into the water, but she does it for her own glory, not Robbie’s.
Water and Cecilia
Water is also symbolic re Cee’s journey, her martyrdom if you will. Her dive into the fountain is the first step leading to the events that will irrevocably unite her fate and Robbie’s and ultimately result in her death, where she will end as she began with him, in the water. Her plunge into the fountain signifies her plunge into their relationship – at that moment she risks her reputation, leaves propriety behind, exposes herself to him, literally and figuratively strips herself of her defenses – as she says herself, she is acting out of character. On the surface it is an act of defiance but in reality it is a move in his direction. Similarly in the next scene where she is fighting so hard against Robbie coming to the dinner she ends by plunging into the water. Finally, in her death scene we see her again in the water, arms outstretched, crucified now by her love for Robbie. Her journey which began with that first plunge is now complete; it begins with her plunge into the water and ends in the water.
Again this is very Christic, Biblical imagery: like Christ’s apostles, Cee first symbolically makes an act of self-abandonment – leaving herself, the world she has known, behind – and ultimately, having been faithful to him, left home and family and possessions for him and followed and suffered with him unreservedly, finds herself crucified as he has been. It begins with her plunge into the water (her commitment to him, or baptism), is confirmed with her plunge into the lake (confirmation) and ends having come full circle with her again in the water at her death, now, having followed him, crucified with him, a martyr for the sake of love.
Seen in this context, it is also symbolically significant that what she is diving for in the fountain is a precious vessel, the broken vase, a treasure. This vase, a treasure, represents true love, the priceless pearl. Her nearly reckless dive for the precious vase symbolizes her willingness to abandon herself, to dive into the deep, in order to seek and save the priceless pearl, which is true Love.
Okay, this post is now embarrassingly long. I've added subtitles to break it up.
More Biblical Imagery
So I’ll just throw in one more Christ-like image I saw. There are essentially three people who are faithful to Robbie after his “crucifixion” has begun and remain so until his death: his mother, Cee, and his wartime friend. These roughly parallel the three people who were faithful to Jesus at the foot of the cross, his mother Mary, his female disciple, Mary Magdalene, who loved him much, and his faithful apostle, St. John. (I’m not saying he was romantically attached to Magdalene, so nobody accuse me of it, please.)
When Briony is sent to talk with Luc, the French soldier, she opens the red curtains around his bed as if the curtains of a theater.
It's like she's on a stage, directing one of her plays...but maybe it's the first time she notices the cruel reality of real life opposing her fictional world.
I found quite interesting the scene where Cee wipes her lip and we see a little blood on the napkin. We know that she bites her lip when Robbie enters her. To see that little blood later on, as a symbol for the breaking of the hymen, I thought it was quite poetic.
As for the water, I have already said this in another thread, I think it may symbolize sexuality. This symbolism of water can be found in other authors, like Federico García Lorca. I think that it makes sense to apply this to Atonement. For example, that scene in which Briony jumps inside the water because she wants Robbie to save her... it could be like the awakening of her sexual attraction for him.
All the symbolism with water I think represents the changes and transitions all the characters go through because that is exactly what water symbolizes in many cultures; change, transition, constantly moving and flowing into the next phase.
Also, the shot were Cecelia is lying on the diving board above the lake and you can see her reflection in the water, rippled and distorted. It's almost a premonition of her death...drowned in water, as she appears in the reflection.
Then in the very next shot Robbie comes out of the bath looking up at the plane, showing a premonition of his fate in war.
The very first opening shot of the film is of a model of the house in which they all live and Briony is typing away, finishing the Trials of Arabella. I got the symbolism in that - it like her whole world is a model and she's controlling it, dramatically changing the lives of those around her and not understanding the severity of her actions.
Also, you see a neatly ordered parade of animals at the start of the film and we see more of those animals, strewn on the bed when Briony finds the letter from the twins. A sign of order falling apart? That things are not all well?
There's quite a lot of Biblical imagery in this, I suppose the most prevalent is Robbie being a Christ-like figure, the sacrificial lamb who bears the burden of others' sins (Briony, the ruling class), and is ultimately destroyed by them. He is quite literally the suffering servant, lol, who is betrayed unto death by his "friends".
And speaking of Biblical imagery, it's interesting the way everything goes black behind Briony at the moment she tells the Lie. It reminded me of that line in the Bible when satan enters into Judas and he goes out to betray Jesus: "And then it was night." The opposite of "let there be light", which is associated with God's act of creation, of giving life. Briony has now engaged evil, and all is darkness, destruction, death.
You may have missed a few. Consider the mansion and its grounds in the beginning the Garden of Eden. The residents live in sexless harmony until the serpent, in the person of Paul Marshall, arrives. He offers a bite of the chocolate “apple” to Lola (see the look on his face as he urges her to “bite” it) and from then on chaos begins to reign. The twins run away, Robbie sends that scandalous letter, he and Cecilia do the dirty in the library, and the devil finds ultimate satisfaction with Lola, who, with her acquiescence to Briony’s story, becomes the agent in driving “Adam,” as Robbie, from the Garden. (In the 1958 film “Damn Yankees,” the devil’s female agent, played by Gwen Verdon, was also named Lola.) Briony, besides symbolizing the initial innocence (i.e., ignorance of sex) of the Eden dwellers, is also God. She created it all! A major symbol is the sound of the typewriter from which all the characters flowed. Later, Cecelia, the source of Original Sin, dies in the Great Flood, and Robbie, like Moses, dies just before crossing over into the Promised Land. Only Briony’s God survives, to literally create the final, happy manifestation of her original Adam and Eve.