It’s rare that a film hangs upon a single point. A small moment that affects the entire direction, feel and impact of a film. By Atonement‘s end, Vanessa Redgrave shoulders this responsibility. In the final minutes, the elderly Briony delivers the film’s knockout blow. In doing so, the authoritative Redgrave presents the beauty of her craft, and the power of her medium.
Let us provide some context. Atonement has a breathless, intoxicating opening, where England is a utopia. The war is over, and the horrors of conflict have no place in the minds of the young. These early scenes, gilded with innocence and light, are an endless joy. Upper-class Cecilia Tallis (a career-best Keira Knightley) and lower-class Robbie Turner (an excellent James McAvoy) begin a whirlwind romance. Yet one damning lie, from Cecilia’s younger sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan), sets all upon a path of despair.
Having read Robbie’s amorous letter to Cecilia, Briony’s youthful mind is shot into an unknown world. Her shock blurs her judgment, for when she witnesses Robbie and Cecilia making love, Briony misinterprets this as rape. In the same evening, Briony discovers her cousin Lola (a young Juno Temple) apparently being raped by an assailant she cannot clearly see. Lola is unable or unwilling to identify the attacker, but Briony decides to accuse Robbie. Nothing more than childhood innocence; Briony’s path of destruction, sparked just from a small innocent misunderstanding.
As the tension grows and the “truth” reveals itself, the impact of her falsehood grows stronger. As the Second World War begins, Briony attempts to atone for her tragic error. However with Robbie in France, and Cecilia a nurse in London, it becomes clear that happiness is a path untrodden in this narrative. This apoplectic mess cannot be “atoned” for, and it will not be resolved. This is where Vanessa Redgrave enters the fray, to add another twist to this sorrowful tale.
Now an aged writer in 1999, the elderly Briony is here to reveal the actual truth in the unfamiliar setting of a TV interview. The beauty and deftness of Wright’s direction and Christopher Hampton’s script disguises the fluid, almost effortless, connection between scenes. In fact, the tragedy is almost too clean. It is only now at the end that Redgrave reveals her character’s true excruciating idiocy, and how everything we’ve seen is a whole other lie. To pull off this act of complete narrative deception, from Wright’s point of view, requires an actress of sensational talent; luckily the director was blessed with Redgrave.
Her opening lines burn into the ears. “I’m dying. My doctor tells me I have something called vascular dementia, which is essentially a series of tiny strokes. Your brain closes down, gradually.” The anguish and pain in Redgrave’s voice and face is disarming. How can we even feel any sympathy for a character of such cowardice?
“You lose words, you lose your memory, which for a writer is pretty much the point,” she says. “So that’s why I could finally write the book, I think. I had to. And why of course it is my last novel.” Redgrave again evolves this character, transforming Briony into a victim of her own self-created tragedy. A character desperate for a redemption, attempting a reprieve without truly accepting guilt.
“I haven’t changed any names, including my own… No. I had for a very long time decided to tell the absolute truth.” So now, after 110 minutes of engrossing, heart-breaking cinema, this final monologue is no longer a question of Briony’s character, but a speech that forces us to question all that has gone before. What is the truth? How deep was Briony’s lie?
“Because, in fact, I was too much of a coward to go and see my sister in June, 1940. I never made that journey to Balham. So the scene in which I confess to them is imagined… invented”. The “atonement” previously witnessed in the film was a fallacy. The veneer of repair has been swept clean. Redgrave delivers such audacious anguish, and appears almost like a magician to trick us one last harrowing time. This initial feeling of redemption and forgiveness from the audiences has now dissipated into a quiet horror and dissent. Robbie and Cecilia deserved one another, and a romance of giddy potential was robbed not by a global conflict, but by a few words from a foolish girl. An even greater sense of vehemence could arrive as we learn of the true fates of Cecilia and Robbie, but Redgrave makes us feel more than that.
The debate about the true notion of atonement is now front and centre. On one hand, Briony never expiated any of her sins and let an innocent love become engulfed by her failings as a person. Yet now, as an elderly woman, she remains within her own world of agony and despair. Within her final work, she has provided Robbie and Cecilia with a timeless, eternal love. Has she atoned now through her suffering? Or through her art? Does it mean anything to simply recognise the incredible mess she created in the first place?
This narrative trick is a masterstroke, acting like a judo master, using our own force against us. At face value, the overwhelming sadness of an unhappy ending consumes. But with Redgrave’s masterful performance, Atonement has a far cleverer, more ambitious close. Redgrave not only makes us question everything that has come before, she pushes us to reconsider our own views on what right and wrong actually mean. The raw, soft intensity that the actress brings is impeccable, delivering an unforgettable four-minute monologue to define a two-hour film. Her quietly commanding speech will be spoken repeatedly in auditions across the land, but none will strike her perfect tone of regret, awe and horror.