If you've read Ian McEwan's spectacular 2001 novel Atonement, you might worry that you'll be armed with too much information for Joe Wright's cinematic adaptation. But the film is true enough to McEwan's story and is made solidly enough to stand on its own merits. It's an epic wartime romance that is well-acted and directed with both style and substance. For fans of the book, it won't always be easy, knowing what's going to happen, or, more appropriately, knowing what's really happening even when the screen says something else, but these characters remain rich enough that, even knowing the outcome, you'll want to see how it ends.
What's missing, however, is McEwan's brilliant meta-story, his examination of the very nature of narration itself and how the theory of a story changes depending on who tells it and how it's spun. Wright skirts the edges of McEwan's deep well, sticking to romantic tragedy rather than the deep, philosophic ideals of writing, but it's hard to see what more he could have done without casting a specter of doubt upon the proceedings, at least in the mind of the beholder.
Thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) is a budding writer, living with her wealthy parents in pre-wartime England. Peering out her window one afternoon, she sees a disturbing sight: her sister Cecelia (Keira Knightly) stripping off most of her garments and leaping into a large fountain at the behest of houseboy Robbie Turner (James McAvoy). When she comes up, dripping wet, she's embarrassed and angry, and Briony—who has long held a crush on Robbie—assumes the worst.
But is that really what happened? We next see the same scene from the point of view of Cecelia and Robbie, who have been burning for each other for years. The chemistry between them crackles, but Briony now has her eye on Robbie, and just as Robbie and Cecelia have finally come to terms with their love for one another, Briony points the finger at him after a sexual altercation between two entirely different houseguests.
The authorities take her account of what's happened, and Robbie is shipped off to prison, eventually enlisting in the army in the hopes of returning to Cecelia as soon as possible. Briony, several years later, realizes her mistake, but by then it's heartbreakingly too late. Cecelia has left her family behind to be a nurse in London, and Robbie is in France, wounded and just trying to stay alive, the two of them wanting nothing more than to be together. So, is there anything Briony can do to solve an unsolvable situation? Well, therein lies the title, her life's work to right a ship that she pushed off course and find a way to earn forgiveness.
Vanessa Redgrave plays the aged Briony, a successful novelist at the end of her career, and it's her explanation of her life and of the truth that we must take at face value.
Joe Wright served notice that he's a director to watch with 2005's Pride and Prejudice, which also starred Knightley, and he has raised the bar with Atonement, which has gorgeous visuals, a great score and a several-minute long tracking shot on the beaches of Dunkirk, where 300,000 defeated English soldiers are hoping to get home. Historical romances have a reputation of being slow and stodgy, but Atonement is crisp, with cinematography as complex and heartbreaking as the story. It's a mature, intelligent film that does well to stay as close to its source material as it can. The novel is epic and filled with the sort of prose you just want to read out loud to someone, and the film captures the story elegantly and delicately, with both Knightley and McAvoy at their most appealing. It may not be as deep as the book, but Atonement has little to atone for.