Unlikable Women: Briony Tallis

Unlikable women: short list; Elle Driver

**Having never read the book the movie Atonement is based on, I can only talk about the movie version of the character.

**I only have jumbled thoughts about her as well, so, proceed at your own risk.

**spoilers for Atonement

I don’t really think Briony is an unlikable woman, but I’m not sure that’s how viewers of the movie broadly feel about her. Nuance apparently doesn’t exist, even for viewers of a film that asks you to understand multiple perspectives of the same event, and asks you to understand, and even like, three people, one of whom has harmed the others without any chance of ever repairing the harm.

But this is Owlmachine and I can say what I want about Briony, so there. Here are the facts about Briony Tallis, re: false rape accusation:

  • she has a crush on Robbie, a groundskeeper or something at her family’s home
  • she and Robbie have some sort of friendship, where she gives him all of her stories to read and he does so and is generally encouraging
  • at one point she jumps into a river and he saves her – she does it out of vanity, and he gets really mad because they both could have died
  • she witnesses three moments between Robbie and her sister Celia over the course of one day, and thinks he is some sort of sexual predator
  • one of the aforementioned is consensual sex, but she thinks it was rape
  • she witnesses a friend of her brother’s raping her cousin later that day and is sure, though she saw someone else, that it must have been Robbie
  • she lies to the police that she saw Robbie with her own eyes, believing that it was him, and that he is dangerous
  • she is thirteen at the time

Her lie ruins Robbie’s life, and Celia’s life, because the two of them had just begun a romance. Also WWII happens shortly afterwards so Celia becomes a nurse, and Robbie becomes a soldier so that he can get out of prison. Both of them die.

There are mitigating factors here. I think I’ve laid them out, but again, if you please: she’s young, she doesn’t understand the full consequences of her lie, she had no idea everything between Robbie and Celia was OK and that Celia wasn’t in danger, etc. In the moments before Briony walks in on the two of them having sex in the library, she is shaking with fear. She is legitimately disturbed by what else she’s seen that day as well. Nobody talks to her. There’s a nice moment where Robbie pauses before leaving the library, almost like he’s thinking about saying something to her, but then doesn’t. None of the three have a chance to talk to each other afterwards, because two of the girls’ cousins run away and during the search party another cousin gets raped.

[Now is as good a time as any for me to just briefly mention that I have a lot of conflicting thoughts about the way this story is constructed, and what it is ultimately about. Pain, I think. Mistakes. Bad choices. Misunderstandings, miscommunication. The inability to connect. Authorship. Atonement.

We linger on the pain of the three main characters. Robbie and Briony in particular get a lot of screen time during which they are in pain. By contrast, Lola, the girl who gets raped – and who later marries her rapist, seeming to both know and not know, or maybe not wanting to know, that he’s her rapist – gets very little screen time in which to be in pain, or to do anything, once she has been raped.

I’m not sure I’ve watched any movie or TV show that actually took on the impact rape has on victims. There’s a recent police procedural I liked, Unbelievable with Merrit Weaver and Toni Collette, but that mostly focused on the police. I haven’t seen a drama like Atonement which shows the effects of rape on someone’s budding/passionate/inappropriate romance, for example. It’s not that I want to, but I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with the focus being only on Robbie, and not on Lola. I realize Lola didn’t have to go to prison or to the war, buuuut she did later marry her rapist, which can’t lead to much happiness. My point is, there’s a lot of sad things that come out of Lola’s rape, but I’m not jazzed that Lola’s marrying the rapist is mostly portrayed as sad because that means she can’t testify against him and clear Robbie’s name.]

That said, I can also list some things about Briony that may signify her as an unlikable woman:

  • “asexual” – not as a sexual orientation, though. I remember director Joe Wright describing Briony this way, talking about both her costumes, which are always loose and shapeless and cold-toned, as well as I guess the fact that she doesn’t have sexual partners
  • her hair, clothes, and jewelry never change from when she is thirteen to when she is a much older woman, like she is frozen in time to when she was thirteen, never moving past her mistake in any way
  • she gets old, gets sick, and writes her last novel as a way to atone for her mistake, fictionalizing an encounter where she struggles to apologize and gets yelled at, as well as moments of happiness for Celia and Robbie who didn’t live long enough to actually have them

While I don’t personally think of any of these things as unlikable, again, I’m not sure that our society agrees. Let’s talk about points 1 and 3 (I don’t have anything to say about 2).

Asexual: First of all, Briony lives a long life. We see her for brief moments as a thirteen year old, an eighteen year old, and a seventy-seven year old. For all anyone knows, she had multiple strings of lovers from age 19 on. She could have been married, she could have been divorced, she could have remarried, and so on, and so forth. I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to think she hasn’t, though, and that she hasn’t because she’s punishing herself for her mistake at thirteen. I’m not sure what I think about that, except that mostly I think it’s stupid.

Denying herself sex might be a way of atoning, but sex isn’t the only way to connect with others. She has a family, a brother, possibly nieces and nephews if she never has children of her own. We see her as a nurse at eighteen, and though she keeps her fellow nurses at a distance, she connects easily and with feeling and warmth to her patients. The only people she can’t really connect with are Celia and Robbie, and even then, there’s another nice little moment where Celia watches Briony try to apologize and is clearly feeling something – maybe not forgiveness, but compassion, at least.

I’d be less weirded out by the “Briony is asexual because she falsely accused a guy of rape” take if not for the weird moments during the scene where she confesses and tries apologizing to Robbie and Celia. She stares at their bed in a kind of pervy way, and later at them, when Robbie attempts to attack Briony and Celia stands in front of him and calms him down “romantically.” Both moments strike me as unnecessary. Do you really stare at your sister’s bed and your sister and her lover as they have some sort of intimate “feminizing the masculine violence out of him” moment – because – I hope not.

I have similar feelings about Darcy’s proposal to Elizabeth in Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice. Every time I watch it, I shake my head when there’s this weird, out of place moment where they kind of look at each other like they want to just start fucking. At least, that’s what I think they’re thinking. In that moment they truly hate each other. She hates him for all the reasons she’s had before, and he hates her for rejecting him. It is just inappropriate. You can put sexual tension in Austen, but not in that part. At least, in my opinion.

Similarly, though, I don’t think the moment where she stands in her sister’s apartment and struggles to apologize is the moment Briony Tallis would choose to write about herself having multiple moments of horniness directed at her sister and her sister’s boyfriend. But what do I know.

Old: In the same scene I was just complaining about, Briony looks out the window and sees an old woman walking down the street with a walker. It nicely mirrors a scene where Robbie looks at an elderly couple while he and Celia awkwardly have tea. Robbie looks at them and seems to know that he will never get there. Briony looks at this old woman and seems to know that this will be her fate, to be an old woman.

I think the implication goes further than, “I’m going to grow old.” I think “alone” is in there too. This irks me as well, because neither we nor Briony know anything about this woman. She’s just alone as she walks down the street. She could have friends. She could have family. She could have a dog. She could have a lesbian lover at home. She could have multiple ghosts haunting her. YOU DON’T KNOW.

Anyway. Briony has gotten the better end of the stick. Objectively. Celia and Robbie die young and that is the tragedy, not that a woman grows old. But, again, I’m not sure society broadly would agree.

To be fair, it is more that she grows old and never moves past the guilt she feels. But still. She gets to become a successful writer, and she uses this gift to atone.

3 thoughts on “Unlikable Women: Briony Tallis

  1. THANK YOU. My god, I’ve never gotten over the reaction to Briony. It was absurd and bewildering and kinda upsetting (to me at least) that people hated the girl who geniunely mistook an innocent for a rapist so much more than they hated *the actual rapist.*

    I haven’t read the book properly for ages but I do remember that right at the end we learn Briony did marry later on in life. She married a French man IIRC, which always made me think, maybe he reminded her of the French soldier she comforted in the hospital just before he died.

    Mind if I share this?


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