Ian McEwan’s novel about love, lies, guilt and the power of storytelling itself receives an impeccable adaptation from Joe Wright, who lavishes on it every bit as much attention to the tone and style of its source as he did to Jane Austen in his debut film, “Pride and Prejudice.” There’s a certain intentional archness to “Atonement” that makes it more an object of admiration than of emotional power, but it’s a joy to watch the resources of cinema deployed to such impressive effect.
The initial reels of the film are devoted to a single summer day in 1935 at the Tallis estate in rural England. Masterfully juggling the perspectives of different characters to mingle truth with misunderstanding and deliberate deception, Wright, screenwriter Christopher Hampton and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey expertly lay out how precocious teen Briony (Saoirse Ronan), who’s infatuated with the housekeeper’s handsome son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), witnesses a passionate tryst between him and her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). Stung by what she considers a betrayal, Briony uses what she’s learned as a result of Robbie’s unwise employment of her as a go-between to accuse him of a crime she knows he didn’t commit, resulting in his eventually being given a choice of serving out a prison sentence or joining the British army after war breaks out.
Robbie and Cecilia are barely able to reconnect before he’s shipped off, but while he struggles to survive the evacuation at Dunkirk and she works as a nurse in a London hospital, Briony (now played by Romola Garai) tries to expiate her feelings of guilt by training as a nurse as well and persuading Cecilia to forgive her. The final act sees Briony make her apologies to her sister and the returned Robbie, but in a coda featuring Vanessa Redgrave as a far older Briony—now an accomplished novelist—there’s a twist that contrasts reality with a new deception, but this time to more beneficial affect.
Throughout, “Atonement” is from the visual perspective a deliberately artful piece of work, no more so than in an amazing, breathlessly prolonged tracking shot on the beach on Dunkirk that rivals anything put on screen to date (“Russian Ark” notwithstanding). That’s but the most astonishing moment of what’s a technical tour de force from first frame to last, in which the work of McGarvey, production designer Sarah Greenwood, art director Ian Bailie, costumer Jacqueline Durran, makeup and hair stylist Ivana Primorac and editor Paul Tothill is absolutely outstanding. And Dario Marianelli’s score captures the period tone nearly as well as they do.
The artfulness continues into the performances, which aim for a slightly artificial attitude that can sometimes seem affectedly old-fashioned but actually give the action the slightly italicized tenor that suits what is, after all, McEwan’s highly literary approach to a tale of love long denied—a story that’s as much about the skill of the teller as it is about what’s told. Though both can seem to overdo the stiff-upper lip conventions, McAvoy, whose potential seemed to have been exaggerated in past films, here actually comes into his own as a leading man, and Knightley nicely differentiates between the flighty Cecilia of the opening scenes and the more intense woman of the latter portion of the picture. As for Briony, young Ronan nails the tight-jawed confusion of the girl; it’s a pity that Garai is less impressive as the older version, coming across as rather pallid. Happily Redgrave arrives to redeem the character in the later stages, and the rest of the cast, particularly Juno Temple as Briony’s cousin Lola and Benedict Cumberbatch as her brother’s smarmy friend Paul, hold up their responsibilities admirably, though most of them, like the leads, adopt a deliberately theatrical pose.
As a Masterpiece Theatre venture played in a heightened style, “Atonement” won’t attract viewers whose tastes run to explosion-laden Hollywood action flicks. But those searching for a film of rare refinement and artistry will agree that its makers have absolutely nothing to apologize for.