"Then is there mirth in heaven,
When earthly things made even
Atone together." Shakespeare's As You Like it.
It's a comfort to know that a first-rate novelist appreciates the consequences of a lie: Ian McEwan's Atonement, unimpressively adapted for film, is a testimony to the power of Nemesis, who lamely applies comeuppance to the worthy, such as adolescent Briony (Saoirse Ronan), who suffers a major case of remorse after wrongly accusing Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) of raping Lola Quincy (Juno Temple). Briony has a crush on Robbie, and after recognizing the considerable competition of the older Cecelia Tallis (Kiera Knightly), resorts to a lie that sends Robbie to prison and then WWII and the rest of the characters into various stages of suffering.
McEwan's allegory, when applied to the machinations of Hitler and ineffectuality of the early allies, is satisfactory for also showing the hope underlying most grand human enterprises. The horrors of WWII as experienced by the condemned Robbie, taking an option to become a foot soldier, are more profound, of course, than the injustice of his spending years in jail. In lengthy tracking through a battlefield that occupies a sagging center of the film, the homely tensions of an uptight Brit family unfortunately give way to director Joe Wright's epic pretensions and thereby lose the drama essential to McEwan's vision of Briony's personal transmogrification and return to humility. Briony, however, lives her own hell as age brings maturity and a growing sense of what she has done wrong to affect the lives of so many by her lies.
But she becomes a writer with 21 books to her credit, the final one called Atonement, an autobiography that expiates as it exposes her sin, played by Vanessa Redgrave, perfectly displaying Briony's weary acceptance of her guilt and still strange estrangement from deep feelings. One problem is that she's still a writer who can't restrain herself from writing fiction, which she does with this story as well, allowing McEwan and company to comment on the lies inherent in fiction and autobiography. Necessary lies? Maybe.
Although the results might prove otherwise, the truths that emanate from lies may be more worthy than first thought, atonement a blessed state reached with a battlefield of victims more vicious than a carefully carefully-crafted but hollow world war landscape.