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Based on a novel which I haven't read. Anyway, let me see if I can set the stage for you. It's England, 1935, on the estate of the wealthy Tallis family. The central character is 13-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), who has just finished writing a play, "The Trials of Arabella." Also staying at the estate are three cousins of hers, 15-year-old Lola Quincey (Juno Temple) and her younger twin brothers, Jackson and Pierrot. Their absent parents are going through a divorce, and none of them are happy about that, nor about having to stay with the Tallises. Anyway, Briony wants them all to help her stage her play, but the twins aren't interested. The day Briony finished writing it, her older brother Leon returns home for a visit, bringing along his friend Paul Marshall (Benedict Cumberbatch), who owns a chocolate factory. Briony was hoping to put on the play that night, in honor of Leon's visit. But... the day holds certain complications.
There's also a young man named Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the son of the Tallises' housekeeper. He has recently graduated from Cambridge, his fees having been paid for by Briony's father. He's spending the summer gardening on the Tallis estate, but intends to go to medical school. Also attending Cambridge is Briony's older sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley). Robbie clearly likes her, but she seems more annoyed by him. And, from a window, Briony witnesses an event that transpires between them, which she misinterprets. We then see the scene from Cecilia and Robbie's perspective, so we get a better idea of what's actually going on. Although... first of all, any reviews I might have read a couple years before seeing this, as well as reading the back of the DVD case, as well as referencing Wikipedia while writing the start of this review while still watching the movie... may have affected how I viewed certain things, and may have lead me to misinterpret exactly how Briony was misinterpreting things. On the other hand, there's the fact that there's always more to a story than the viewer is necessarily privy to. These people have known each other for years, and we've known them less than an hour, at this point. So there's history we're not aware of, the lack of which could itself cause misinterpretation of events. But all the various resources, including watching the movie itself, makes it hard to say if we were meant to get the impression that Briony was jealous... or thought something quite different.
Anyway. Leon had, I guess, invited Robbie to dinner with the family that night. But because of the earlier incident, Robbie felt the need to write a letter of apology to Cecilia. He abandoned a few drafts, before finally clearing his head by writing a sexually explicit letter that he never intended for her to actually read. After that, he managed to compose a proper letter. Later, as he was walking toward the Tallises' house, he encountered Briony, and gave her the letter, to deliver to Cecilia ahead of him. After she left, he realized he'd mistakenly given her the explicit letter, which Briony read before giving it to her sister. She then confided what she'd read to Lola, and the two girls became convinced that Robbie was a sex maniac. And just before dinner, Briony happens upon Robbie and Cecilia making love in the library, which, again, she possibly misinterprets (or maybe it simply fuels her jealousy). And then, we get to see the scene replayed from Cecilia and Robbie's perspective.
Well... they don't talk about the incident, or anything, but immediately they all go to dinner, where of course the rest of the family and guests know nothing about any of this. And Briony is somewhat hostile toward Robbie. But... her mother sends her to fetch the twins, who are absent, and she finds a letter saying they've run away. So everyone goes out to search for them, and in the midst of the search, Briony happens upon Lola being raped, by a man who runs away. Lola says she didn't see who it was, but Briony claims that she clearly saw it was Robbie. Once again I must stop to mention my own shaky preconception of what the movie was supposed to be about. First of all, I'd been rather under the impression that she was going to claim Robbie had raped her, not Lola. I should also say, it took longer for the story to reach this point than I'd expected, since it's such a key plot point, I thought the majority of the film would be about the ramifications of the lie. But... I suppose it does come less than half way into the movie, so... there's plenty of story yet to come. (I'll also say that, in spite of not seeing Lola's attacker, viewers will likely have a good guess as to who it actually was.)
Anyway. Robbie is arrested, and the story jumps to France, four years later (according to a caption; though we soon learn it was 1940, which by my math is five years later). He'd been given the choice of remaining in prison, or joining the army. So, now he had been fighting in World War II. We do get to see some flashbacks, to a few months earlier, when Cecilia (working as a nurse) had been briefly reunited with Robbie, and the two of them planned to get back together eventually, in spite of her family's disapproval. We also see a flashback to years before, when Briony was 10 or 11, apparently, and an incident with Robbie that made it seem more clear that she would, by the time of the first part of the movie, have been jealous of her sister. Or not, I dunno. All this jumping around in time and different perspectives just makes it harder for me to really grasp much of anything. (Or perhaps it's more about reading different resources; maybe if I'd just watched the movie, or better yet read the book, it'd make more sense to me.)
But anyway. We then learn that in 1940, Briony is a nursing student herself, and has to tend to wounded soldiers. And eventually tries to make amends for the lie she told, though of course her sister and Robbie don't want to forgive her. We also learn who really attacked Lola (which as I said, wasn't hard to guess), but... the matter had become complicated. In any event, that's a side issue....
Then the story jumps ahead to Briony as an old woman, being interviewed in regards to the publication of her 21st novel, which she also says is her last (as well as her first, in a roundabout way). I don't want to say too much about this, but... the book is mostly autobiographical, except for one scene which has been made up. I suppose you could call it telling one lie to attempt to atone for another, but of course... it's merely symbolic, and ultimately changes nothing. Still, it's... a shocking revelation, and heartbreaking. And I've said far too much already. So I'm done talking about the plot.
So all that's left is to say it's a beautiful, if tragic, film. A moving story, great acting all around, and even a bit of humor. I also can't help but mention that I liked the occasional musical cues that sounded like typing. (Because, of course, typing was very important to the plot, whether it is referencing young Briony's play, Robbie's letter of apology, or old Briony's final novel.) In fact I think there were also sound effects of other things that sounded... rather like typing, as well. (And I'm not even counting the typing of captions.) And I liked the storytelling techniques as well, changes of perspective and whatnot. And if I felt terrible for pretty much everyone, it was the kind of pain that can be called exquisite (if it's not happening to you personally). And... I feel like I must be forgetting some things I meant to say.