Briony Tallis has it in her to be a writer of fiction at a very young age. She is intense, imaginative, and has just completed her first play, The Trials of Arabella, which was about, what else?—“the complications of love.” After all, she is thirteen and has a crush on her sister Cecilia’s suitor, Robbie. Nonetheless, all of these forces conspire within Briony one day and night at her family’s manor in pre-WWII England to create a tragedy of major proportions. As a result of her fictionalizing, great pain and suffering come to Cecilia and Robbie.
Five years later, Robbie is fighting in the war, while Cecilia serves as a nurse in London. Rather than pursuing her writing at a university, Briony is also working as a nurse in London, but at a different hospital than Cecilia. She and her sister are still estranged and have no contact with one another. While working at the hospital, Briony reaches out to Cecilia in a letter:
I decided I wanted to make myself useful. Do something practical. No matter how hard I work, no matter how long the hours, I can’t escape from what I did, and what it meant, the full extent of which I am only now beginning to grasp.
As the movie makes clear, Briony’s choice of the hospital is motivated more by her personal guilt than her patriotism. Her rejection of the university and her work among the wounded and dying are all part of a self-imposed sentence which includes cleaning bedpans, mopping floors, and scrubbing bed frames. Yet despite all of these efforts, she is unable to find cleansing from her guilt (witnessed by her constantly scrubbing her clean hands). Even the break-you-down-to-rebuild-you discipline she is subjected to, such as when the head nurse reminds her she is Nurse Tallis (“There is no Briony”), cannot purge her from her past. All of her efforts at atonement are impotent.
In a pivotal scene that takes place late one night, Briony is told to go sit at the bedside of a dying French soldier. Using the French she has learned in school, she is able to converse with him a little. He asks her to adjust the bandage on his head wound, and she does so with great tenderness, getting some blood on her forehead in the process. The delirious soldier then confuses her with someone from his past and confesses his love to her. Briony, who has previously confided to another nurse that she has never loved anyone, tells the soldier she loves him. He then speaks her name, “Tallis“, but she corrects him, saying, “Briony.”
There she sits, holding the hand of a dying soldier with blood on her face, confessing her name and professing her love. She has started toward atonement because she has owned who she is (not just Tallis the nurse, but Briony the writer of fiction), and what she has done (blood on her face).
Our world is full of Brionys who are living as Tallises—knowing the searing pain and ravishing hunger in their soul, but doing all the wrong things about it. We don’t have the power within ourselves to make atonement! It’s only when we realize we can’t get ourselves out of what we got ourselves into, that hope can enter the picture. It’s only when we confess who were are and what we’ve done and open our lives to real love—the love of our Father, that atonement will be possible. If any of this speaks to where you are right now, please know that atonement is not only possible, it’s provided in Jesus Christ. The Scripture says:
“My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world,” (1 John 2:1-2).For more along these lines, let me encourage you to spend some time in the Coming to God section of this site.