Ian McEwan's novel "Atonement" —and Joe Wright's mesmerizing, remarkably faithful screen version—pivots on a series of fatal misperceptions. A bright, privileged, overly imaginative 13-year-old girl, Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), aroused and frightened by a passion she doesn't understand between her older sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the dashing son of the family's housekeeper, tells a lie that destroys the lives of many people. How she makes up for it—how she atones —is at the heart of McEwan's brilliant, intricately structured metafiction, a novel that ruminates on the morality of turning fact into fiction while telling a spellbinding love story that starts in 1930s England, takes us through the battle-scarred landscape of France in World War II and ends, with a rug-pulling twist, in the present.
The first 50 minutes of Wright's movie, set on the Tallises' lavish country estate during a sweltering summer in 1935, are dazzling. The beauty of this aristocratic prewar world seduces our senses just as the tricky, steel-trap storytelling engages our minds. Screenwriter Christopher Hampton introduces a large gallery of characters, subtly delineating the unspoken class biases that will keep Robbie, for all his confidence, charm and Cambridge education, an outsider. The narrative loops back on itself, repeating crucial scenes, first as Briony sees them, then from Cecilia's and Robbie's points of view. As it will become clear by the end, the truth about any moment is subject to revision.
Wright (the 2005 "Pride and Prejudice") pitches this brisk, bewitching first section as a heady mix of comedy, melodrama and tragedy. It's a shock to be transported from this formal, opulent world into the chaos of war in part two. Robbie, having served time in prison for a crime he didn't commit, is now a soldier fighting the Germans in France. Cecilia is working in a hospital on the home front, praying that her lover will return alive. The 18-year-old Briony (Romola Garai) tends to wounded soldiers in another London hospital to expiate her guilt. Young Ronan is such a captivating presence as the young Briony, you're sorry to see her replaced by the less vibrant Garai, but Garai's more muted performance makes sense: the chastened Briony must erase herself to purge her sins. When the character reappears, in the movie's coda, she is played by Vanessa Redgrave. This Briony, a novelist at the end of her life, breaks your heart.
The first time I saw "Atonement" I thought that the movie lost its focus in the delirium of the war scenes—the director was trying too hard to impress. When a wounded Robbie reaches Dunkirk, Wright choreographs an astonishing four-minute Steadicam shot complete with hundreds of extras, dead horses, a singing chorus of soldiers—and a Ferris wheel. It's amazing, but its virtuosity seemed self-regarding, and it threw me out of the movie. But the self-conscious, densely detailed "Atonement" is a movie that rewards a second viewing. There's a purpose to its artifice. The chemistry between Knightley and McAvoy is white-hot: her brittle, chilly Cecilia comes to life in his presence. His charming, virile Robbie, whose dreams are smashed first by treachery, then by the war, bears no resemblance to the McAvoy of "The Last King of Scotland"; it's a marvelous performance, and the movie's emotional anchor. No two-hour film could ever capture all the riches of McEwan's masterly novel. But Wright and Hampton's "Atonement" comes tantalizingly close, while adding sensual delights all its own.