"You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." Exodus 20:16
In Atonement, one young girl's false accusation changes the course of so many lives. 13-year old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) begins this film with a childhood crush on her English estate's hired hand Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), and when she suspects something sensual with Robbie and her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightly), her imagination kicks into high gear.
This rapid-fire series of events leads to Briony getting even with her sister by falsely accusing Robbie of child molestation and rape, which leads him to a choice between prison or conscription into the British army (he choses military service). Cecilia, who has fallen in love with Robbie, decides to become a British army nurse, and they live unsatisfied lives - coming together only on brief occasions - and eventually this seperation and misery leads to their untimely deaths. Meanwhile, the actual perpetrator of the molestation and rape goes free and eventually marries the young girl whom he once abused.
One false accusion and lives are forever changed. Like another film this season, Sweeney Todd, this movie shows us how one action or choice can lead to so much more than anticipated.
The commandment, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor" (Ex. 20:16) is often one of the most glossed-over amongst the ten commandments of Scripture. We often sideline this particular command to a "by the way" status compared to murder and adultery. But Atonement shows us the pain that one simple act of false witness can cause not just for the one who commits the sin, but upon all that surround that person.
The film's title, Atonement, refers to the journey that Brioney takes for the rest of her life. She realized - perhaps too late - that her one selfish action caused so much pain and death, and she desperately wants to atone - to undo or at the very least, make up - for that sin.
And she tries, but dedicating the final novel of her life (revealed by the 85-year old Brioney, played by Vanessa Redgrave) to Robbie and Cecilia as a way to atone for what she did to them.
We are left to wonder: is this atonement too little, too late? That is not for us to judge. But what we can do is be more conscious of our actions and our words. Have we ever lied or given false witness against someone else for selfish reasons? Have we ever done something out of vengence or spite? Have we ever made a wrong decision that affected other people negatively?
Have we atoned for our actions? Have we asked forgiveness for those we've wronged? Or do we let it fester in our minds and let nothing be said to reconcile?
These are questions we are left with as the credits roll. Regardless of whether or not it was right or wrong what Brioney did, it causes us to think about what we have done - and if we have lied or hurt another out of spite, it causes us to think about how we have sought redemption and atonement.
Let us always remember to be truthful, to hold spite and vengence in check, and if we do sin, may we seek forgiveness and make right what once went wrong.