What a beautiful, stressful film. Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), a precocious 13-year-old, witnesses her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and her lover Robbie (James McAvoy) together, and her response has long-lasting impacts on all three of their lives.
There were some things that I really liked about this film. I liked the way the story unfolds. Several scenes are shown twice, from two different perspectives. Through the window Briony sees Cecilia furiously taking off most of her clothes and climbing into the fountain, then emerging and staring at Robbie, and then storming off. The next cut takes us back through Cecilia’s point of view, and we see the scene in more detail. We experience the tense dialogue between Cecilia and Robbie as they walk to the fountain. We see Cecilia’s anger when Robbie accidentally breaks the vase, and we watch her impulsively dive into the fountain to retrieve the missing piece. We sense the sexual tension when she emerges, soaking wet, and becomes suddenly self-conscious.
This is a clever trick that is used several times, and it has the effect of both aligning us with Briony’s point of view, and also separating us from it. We see the world through her eyes first: the confusing interaction at the fountain, the sexual scene that she intrudes on in the library, Robbie’s arrest as she sees it from an upstairs window. We, briefly, know only as much as Briony knows, and we identify with her point of view. But we are subsequently provided with more information as we see those scenes in full, and Briony’s perspective is reduced to that of a confused child when we know what is really going on. Since this is a story about what a child saw and how she reacted to it, I thought that this method of conveying the story was both clever and appropriate.
I also liked the way diegetic and nondiegetic sound were used throughout the film. The score was peppered with the percussive sound of typewriter keys—a choice that I appreciated especially at the end of the film, when we discover that everything we have seen so far has been a part of Briony’s novel. She has literally typed out everything that we are experiencing, so I thought it was brilliant to have the sound of typing be a part of the score.
At other points the diegetic and nondiegetic sound coalesced: Cecilia reaches down to pluck a string of the piano, and the note she plucks is in perfect pitch and time with the score. When Robbie’s mother slams repeatedly on the hood of the police car as they take Robbie away, her thudding becomes rhythmically incorporated into the score. Moments like this were interesting to me because they emphasized the idea of the entire world of the film—the score, the actions of the characters—being contained in Briony’s novel. Rather than giving us the impression that we are watching real events, we are constantly reminded that everything in the film is a construction, a story being told to us.
On the other hand, something that I did not like about this film was how completely unlikeable I found all the characters to be. Robbie has a little bit of depth, at least at the beginning of the movie. There is a sweetness and a childishness about him. He laughs inappropriately when he breaks Cecilia’s vase in the fountain—laughs even in the face of her obvious outrage. He types out a crude, sexual line to Cecilia in a letter and makes himself laugh out loud, with no intention of ever sending it to her. (Alas…) And there is the other side to him, the more serious and sincere side.
Unfortunately it seems that all of Robbie’s likeable qualities evaporate once he is sent to prison and then the army. (Understandably. His life is miserable.) He is transformed into this sad, hollow, aching man, and he seems suddenly two-dimensional.
Cecilia is utterly cold throughout the film. Keira Knightley is beautiful (although bony, my god!) but otherwise impenetrable. Even the way she walks struck me as inhuman, with her shoulders pulled up and her arms out behind her. I found her relationship with Briony to be lacking in affection, and her relationship with Robbie to be stiff and awkward. I suppose a lot of what I interpreted as awkwardness is supposed to be sexual tension and suppressed passion, but it just didn’t read for me. I found it hard to really invest myself in Cecilia and Robbie’s love story when I didn’t particularly care for them as characters. Their story was passionate, certainly, and it was sexy, but they were both just so miserable that I didn’t want to root for them.
Perhaps my favorite scene in the movie is a flashback in which Robbie recalls Briony jumping into a lake so that he will save her. She is delighted when he does, beaming as he drags her out of the water, and we suddenly realize that Briony has feelings of her own for Robbie. She thanks him for saving her life, and he calls her a “stupid child”—which is perfect, because not only is he furious and oblivious to her feelings, but he also infantilizes her. A child is exactly the opposite of what Briony wants to be in Robbie’s eyes. Briony is also wearing a swimsuit and cap, just as Cecilia wears earlier in the film, and she looks particularly childlike in comparison to her glamorous older sister. This scene really changed the lens through which I saw the whole story. To think that Briony is motivated by her own crush on Robbie modifies everything that we have seen so far. It is also the most humanizing moment for Briony up until this point. For the first time in the film, I actually felt sorry for her.
Overall, an overwhelmingly British movie. A lot of tea. A lot of quick, quippy dialogue, tempered with scenes of quiet, contained angst and meaningful eye contact. The whole film was a little depressing for my taste—it was so pessimistic that I ended up with a “so what” feeling at the end. This, unfortunately, I think had to do with the lack of connection that I felt with the characters.
Things I will say for the film: it was sexy. And beautifully shot. But my god, what on earth kind of a name is Briony?