Director Joe Wright follows up his exquisite feature debut, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, with a beautifully composed and richly satisfying adaptation of Ian McEwan's modern novel Atonement. With some imaginative structural shaping by screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons), Atonement tells a story of youthful indiscretion and the implications of that breach just prior to the Second World War.
Atonement begins in 1935 at the British estate of the Tallis family. Briony (Saoirse Ronan) is a 13-year-old budding writer who has a mad crush on Robbie (James McAvoy), the son of one of their servants. Her eldest sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), also has strong, yet unacknowledged, feelings of deep love for Robbie. When Briony discovers this, she gives in to her jealousy and commits an act that irrevocably changes the course of everyone's life around her—including her own.
As in Pride and Prejudice, Wright does more than just open up the themes in the story—he visually reimagines the characters for the actors to fully inhabit. Once again, Knightley, who was startlingly good as the vivacious Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, captures the fragile sensuality of a woman who falls in love out of her social class. McAvoy gives his tragic character an understated grief for the possibilities left unfulfilled. And Ronan, who is equally remarkable in Gillian Armstrong's Death Defying Acts, plays Briony's precociousness with a sharpness that cuts deeply.
Wright also handles the shifts in tone more confidently than in Pride and Prejudice. For instance, he presents the agonizing evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940 with a long panorama tracking shot that captures the mayhem and despair of the shell-shocked soldiers. The scene has some of the same dire grandeur of the concluding battle in Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men. Atonement is so good it redeems our faith in intelligent drama.
Cast: Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave
Director: Joe Wright
Screenwriter: Christopher Hampton
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Paul Webster
Rating: R for disturbing war images, language and some sexuality
Running time: 123 min.
Release date: December 7, 2007 ltd.