By Connie Ogle
It was inevitable that Ian McEwan’s virtuosic Atonement, an exquisitely deliberate story brimming with passion, betrayal and violence, would be made into a movie. But literary pedigree is no guarantee of success; not every adaptation set during World War II turns out to be The English Patient.
So it is a piercing joy to discover that Atonement, directed by Joe Wright, is every bit as magnificent as Ian McEwan’s rich and meticulous novel. Wright (Pride and Prejudice) and screenwriter Christopher Hampton (The Quiet American, Dangerous Liaisons) understand that McEwan’s epic extends deeper than its obvious love story, that the soul of the novel explores something else entirely: the arrogance and power of the imagination. They have infused the film with this vital knowledge, and they get every nuance exactly right, from the casting and the atmospheric lighting, costumes and set to the devastatingly understated dialogue. The interpretation is so painstaking and moving that almost every moment delivers a shuddering jolt to the head and the heart.
Atonement is a story about a dreadful but not wholly innocent mistake, one born of willfulness and inexperience. The drama opens to the relentless clacking of an old-fashioned typewriter — a sound that resurfaces intermittently throughout the soundtrack — at the rambling Tallis estate sprawled across the English countryside not far from London. Rumblings about Hitler are still faint enough for the young and self-absorbed to ignore them, particularly self-important, 13-year-old Briony Tallis, who is writing a play.
Briony (the astonishing Saoirse Ronan), aims to see her work performed in honor of her visiting brother and his friend, a chocolate magnate. But the evening, ripe with expectations and dark desires, does not unfold according to her script: Briony’s foolish misinterpretation of events triggers the derailment of the lives of her older sister Cecelia (Keira Knightley) and poor but educated housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy, blue eyes shining with hope, tremendous in what has to be his best role).
Under other circumstances, Cecelia and Robbie, fresh from Cambridge and eyeing each other with undisguised longing, might shock the household by reaching what used to be called an understanding. Instead, Robbie ends up a soldier in northern France, making his way to the beach at Dunkirk for evacuation with the rest of the battered British troops.
Atonement cuts out much of McEwan’s war narration, but Wright hammers home his point — that no one escapes such madness unscathed — with a breathtaking tracking shot of Robbie and two companions staggering along the beach. Jammed with drunken or half-crazed soldiers awaiting rescue amid complete chaos, the beach scene provides a nightmarish, visual counterpoint in ugly contrast to the earlier, bucolic scenes of youthful possibility.
Still, Atonement remains a film in which small things weigh heavily, such as fragments of speech — a whispered ”Come back. Come back to me,” a steely ”I saw him with my own eyes” — or the hush just before lovers fall hungrily into each other or the agonizing pauses in Briony’s explanation of herself at the film’s end. The elder Briony is played by Vanessa Redgrave, whose riveting presence acts as magnificent punctuation to this finely acted miracle of a film.