English films are, on the whole, dreadfully boring. I almost didn’t make it past the first 20 minutes, but I’m very glad I did. Joe Wright has the directorial ability to make even this vapid setting come to life…eventually.
My whole reason for watching was to see another Saoirse Ronan film. She had a very difficult role here…and not, one would imagine, an entirely pleasant one. Funny how a film can hinge on a single word…that word, for this film, being cunt.
That joke isn’t funny anymore to our protagonist Robbie Turner. In an episode which bears a striking resemblance to Godard’s “Montparnasse-Levallois” from the anthology film Paris vu par… (itself inspired by a Giraudoux story circa 1910), Robbie sends the wrong letter–an exasperated version which he never meant to see the light of day. Not only is it sent, it is read by Saoirse’s young character before she passes it on to her older sister Cecilia.
When Saoirse catches Robbie and Cecilia having sex, she is convinced that Robbie is indeed a sex maniac. Chalk all this up to the sexually repressive remnants of a Victorian age not long past. The year, after all, is 1935.
I won’t give you a blow by blow, but the young girl’s misinterpretation of events (she takes the act of sex which she walked in on as an attack though it was just a passionate moment) leads her to circumstantially link Robbie to a child’s rape. The actual rapist gets away unscathed while Robbie takes the blame and spends four years in prison. His only option arises when WWII starts and he can decide to stay in prison or join the military.
As Robbie chooses the latter, we see some fantastic filmmaking from Wright. The most haunting is the scene on the beach at Dunkirk where retreating British soldiers have massed. I have seen few shots as complete in their cinematic poetry as the wrecked beach and army with a Ferris wheel spinning langourously behind them.
Another moment of pure film poetry comes when the grown up Saoirse (played wonderfully by Romola Garai) floats across a hospital ward to the strains of Debussy’s Clair de lune. Having just watched a French soldier die from a horrible head wound, she is growing up and soon will realize that she had been wrong about Robbie. She is tipped off to the latter when she visits a movie theater and sees in a newsreel that the actual rapist (owner of a chocolate factory) had strangely married the sexually abused girl (Lola). Briony (Saoirse’s character, but now played by Garai) deduces the truth in remembering that the chocolatier (Benedict Cumberbatch) had been at the party where the incident occurred. Whether Briony now sees him clearly in her memory for the first time (being too young to register the shock) or whether she had lied about the guilty party is not at all clear to me. It could be inferred that she pinned the crime on Robbie out of jealousy because, as we learn more fully, she had been in love with him (though she was just 13).
James McAvoy is wonderful, Keira Knightley divine and Vanessa Redgrave excellent (though her section of the film is clearly derivative of Titanic), but the true credit for a veritable piece of cinema goes to Joe Wright. It’s not as good as Hanna, but it’s nice to know that his versatility is breathtaking.