Atonement: The Significance of Significance

[Note: this review contains spoilers about the movie’s plot but not the ending.]

I must begin this review with a warning. Atonement is, while I would say one of the most beautiful and moving films I have ever seen, an intensely difficult film to watch. Firstly, the film centres on a furtive and misunderstood sexual encounter and an erotic letter; while language does not often still elicit strong emotions from the seasoned moviegoer – the letter includes a word that, while never spoken aloud, might be enough vulgarity[1] to keep away certain potential audience members. As I elaborate upon later in this review, the most crucial lesson to be gleaned from this film is the very importance of choice when it comes to our actions and our words – choice and, its wiser partner, control. Thus, while the story does require the word and the action (and so I will not use the word gratuitous) I must warn anyone who, upon completion of my review, decides that the film is worth seeing despite the emotional toll, to bear in mind that, sometimes, to best learn the lesson of the essence of tzniut and Godliness, one must delve deep into its very opposite. To put it in other words, this lesson is not for those who have not already begun to learn it and steel themselves against it. I can only say that I am made better for having seen this film but am strongly aware of Nietzsche’s warning regarding the abyss. 

For those who are still with me, I must provide a second warning. Atonement’s intensity is not simply reserved for the aspects of it which are questionably appropriate. It is also a film filled to the brim – and, it could be argued (without giving too much away), in the last moments of the film, actually overfilled beyond the brim – with tragedy. Not, mind you, the soft tragedy that, like a Victorian woman’s version of snuff powder for tears, brings up a good cry that actually cleanses the spirit but the brooding tragedy of heavy despair. Atonement is haunted by the dark sadness of lost moments and unfixable actions, not at all the stuff of rainy afternoon parlours and lacy silk handkerchiefs. The viewer must contend with an onslaught of many different tragedies, many different mistakes. All of them man-made. And that is the greatest difficulty of all, I think: to sit through an historical fiction aware of how true the true parts are and how plausible the rest and to know, with the certainty that makes one’s soul scream, that all could have been avoided – that all is the work of our species and all that is ugly in this film is our ugliness.

That is, perhaps, the potent point of seeing this movie. For now, after seeing it, so much that was murky to me is made clearer – painfully so. Everything we do matters. Everything. That is why we must reconsider our sins, not just once a year but every day. That is why we must beg forgiveness, not only of God and of our own self, but of the actual persons we have wronged. I have always understood the sinfulness of gossip, of slander, of lies but this film does not wish to show the sin as much as the pure evil of it. The evil that comes from thinking what we say is dissoluble, that what we do is reversible. For, while the film does focus upon the evil of speaking about what one should not, it is necessary to glean from the film the other side of the image – the more subtle crime that comes from being where one should not be and doing what one should not do.

In Atonement, a young girl, Briony, sees her sister sexually engaged with a man; she witnesses it because the young couple, very young and very much in love, have allowed passion to overtake their senses in the family library right before dinner. To Briony, the narrator of the story, what she has witnessed can only make sense in the context of violence, betrayal and crime. Thus, when, later that evening, a girl is assaulted, Briony, the only potential witness to the assault, superimposes the image from the library and comes to the conclusion that it must have been the same young man. Her testimony, starkly absent any explanation of how Briony’s mind moved down its twisted path of pseudo-logical progression, thus, simply reinvents a shadowed glance as unequivocal truth and condemns her sister’s lover.

Briony’s sin is obvious. It is, of course, one of the Ten Commandments. But Briony’s sins are more plentiful than simple false testimony and she is not, by any means, the only one to have sinned that dark night. Briony was young, too young perhaps, to understand enough of human relationships to have come to any other conclusion but that her sister was attacked by a madman in the library, a madman who, naturally, struck again that night. This reminds me of a joke: two young frum people get married and, after a few months, find that they are unable to get pregnant. They go to the doctor to find out what is wrong; after examining them both and having a brief discussion, the doctor retreats to his office and rummages through his drawers until he uncovers a Barbie and Ken. The doctor then returns to the room where the anxious couple is waiting and proceeds to demonstrate what must be done if they wish to have children.

Is it awful that two adults, married adults, are completely unaware of human sexuality? Or is it the pinnacle of purity? Is the joke insulting to the Orthodox community or complimentary? I think that it must be both. Ignorance is not innocence; ignorance is oftentimes the last step before the fall. This is, perhaps, one of the very first lessons of the Torah – God told Adam not to eat from the tree and Adam told Eve that she would die if she touched the tree. And so, when the serpent shows Eve that the forbidden touch does not end in death she begins to wonder what other aspects of the prohibition are false. The rest is, as they say, history.

However, there are certain topics, certain areas of human existence that are private. Not taboo. Private. There is, of course, a vital difference. When confronted with the dilemma of whether to preserve the privacy of certain activities and emotions or fulfill the obligations of chinuch, education, it is understandable that some parents might push off the “birds and the bees” discussion. Not, as is mocked in secular culture, because of some prudish discomfort but, hopefully, because such a topic deserves a level of tznius that is not easy to summon up.

Still, I must insist that the first sinners that night of Briony’s sin would have to be her parents, and perhaps the larger society, that failed to prepare a thirteen year old girl for the many intricate and confusing aspects that make up an unavoidable part of the adult psyche and behaviour. Or, at the very least, failed to prepare her for the inevitable encounter with intricacy and confusion.

The second and third sinners are almost so obvious that it is easy to let them slip by; they are Briony’s sister, Cecilia, and Cecilia’s lover, Robbie. Ignoring, for the moment, Halacha’s position on pre-marital sex: even if the two individuals had been married, their almost public display showed a complete disregard for tznius. Yes, it could be argued, they simply made some passion-induced mistakes and that would be a fair evaluation. Nonetheless, the sense between them was that privacy, while still preferable (they did, after all, close the library door), was not imperative, that emotions were to be allowed to overcome, to overwhelm. It is difficult to judge them too harshly since the great tragedy to unfold in the film affects them the most but it is essential to note that the sin of gossip falls upon the head of the object of the gossip as well as the gossiper, that one must be very careful not to inspire loshon hara[2].

As for Briony, her sins are multifold. She talks about what she should not talk about, watches what she should not watch, lies and slanders an innocent man. She invites the world of fantasy to blur her ability to perceive reality. Still, she, too, is as much a victim as a sinner – having been pulled into a world she was not prepared to comprehend – and no one offers her any form of assistance or guidance until it is too late.

As if this sin-soaked, emotion-drenched tale were not enough to absorb, the movie is set in WWII Europe. So, as we follow Soldier Robbie through France, we are made witness to the utter destruction that enveloped both warriors and civilians. And, as we return to London, and Nurses Cecilia and Briony, we are offered no respite but must turn our attention to the seemingly futile attempts to pick up the shattered pieces of humanity and weave them back into some semblance of normalcy. Through all of this, there is the distant whisper in the back of one’s mind that every drop of blood spilled was shed by human actions. Which isn’t to say that the answer is pacifism; the film does not ignore (although it does not, thankfully[3], dwell upon) the horrors of the time that warrant, or actually require, a violent response.

I recall that, as a young student – perhaps exactly Briony’s age at the start of the film – my history teacher insisted we know the underlying causes of both World Wars. She wished for us to understand the small political and social events that snowballed into the war to end all wars and its horrific sequel. It is not an easy thing to do with historical events, despite the potency of hindsight, because there are a million different and disconnected events that contribute to a single occurrence. Yet, the importance of underlying causes is not so much in what they are but in that they exist. The carelessness that is to be found in this film is not grand; Cecilia and Robbie are hardly the first teenagers to kiss in a corner and Briony will not be the last child to lie. WWII was not the last war this world has found itself embroiled in and people will continue to die in the hospital with only a young nurse holding their hand. However, if we can break up incidents into the tiny little moments and actions that lead to them and, more importantly, control our own roles in the chain of causality, then we can begin to grasp the message of this film and the steely beauty suffusing the mussar side of Jewish law.

For, the laws of tznius and of loshon hara are not like the laws of kashrut or Shabbos. They are not meant to be a list of rules; they are concepts that infuse our every action, our every word. These laws and their satellites are meant to be a part of every decision we make. They are there to show us how important every decision we make actually is. It is not a pleasant idea to face, that carelessness can end in tragedy, but the alternative is a world in which what we do has no significance. In such a world we would be safe, ignorant children, cocooned in a globe of play and frivolity but we would never be contributors to our own destinies. God spoke and a world was created; God acted and a nation was born. Whether we like it or not, our words and our actions carry similar power. If they did not, how could we possibly be partners in creation[4]


Dodi-Lee Hecht

[1] I will not say what this word is since it is easily discoverable on the Internet or in the newspapers. One could even read the book on which this film is based (although I think that to do so simply to know this word is probably the worst possible reason I’ve ever heard of for reading a piece of literature). The word is generally considered one of the more atrocious of the long list of obscenities in the English language if not the most atrocious. Still, for the sake of full disclosure and to grant this film and the author of the book the benefit of the doubt, it should be recognized that the term’s infamous status in North America is not shared throughout the English-speaking world and, in England during the first part of the Twentieth century (where and when the story takes place), it could, in certain contexts, be viewed as affectionate. Of course, even if the term was meant affectionately, I cannot imagine that the alternative legacy of this word was lost on the author or the filmmaker. 

[2] Please note that this comment is not meant to suggest that one always or even ever deserves to have loshon hara spoken about them. A victim of loshon hara is just that – a victim. Still, we can only control our own actions and the laws of tznius and ma’arat eyin (inspiring a false impression – the classic example is entering a non-kosher restaurant simply to buy a drink – technically you have not eaten anything non-kosher but anyone who simply saw you enter the restaurant would have cause to doubt) definitely imply that there is a flip side to loshon hara (gossip), rechilus (slander), and dan lechaf zchut (giving one the benefit of the doubt) that one cannot ignore. It is not enough to say someone else should not talk – there is rarely need to give people something to talk about.

[3] I think that there is enough of human weakness to this film without explicitly evoking the great evil of the Holocaust.

[4] The notion that human beings are meant to be partners in creation is a crucial pillar of Jewish thought. It is powerfully expounded upon and investigated in Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik’s Halachic Man, in particular, the second part of the book, “His Creative Capacity.”