Nothing in Joe Wright’s screen version of Ian McEwan’s dense, internalized 2001 novel of secrets and lies should really work, but damn near everything does. It’s some kind of miracle. Written, directed and acted to perfection, Atonement sweeps you up on waves of humor, heartbreak and ravishing romance. The film moves from the country estate of a wealthy British family, circa 1935, through the World War II battlefields of Dunkirk and finally to the end of the twentieth century, where it springs its most haunting surprise. Stuffy? Not a bit. This potently erotic spellbinder is not your father’s period piece. It speaks, minus the stiff upper lip, of what’s timeless about passion, art and redemption. Atonement is literary in the best possible sense: It’s obsessed with the power of words.
Robbie Turner, portrayed with ardent precision by James McAvoy, is the son of the family housekeeper. At first he can’t find words to express his longing for Cecilia Tallis, the daughter of privilege who ignores him. Since Cecilia is played by the sensational Keira Knightley, who blends beauty and gravity to stunning effect, Robbie’s fixation is understandable. Then, on a summer afternoon, Cecilia jumps in a fountain to retrieve a family heirloom Robbie has tossed away. Her fury at him is boundless. He can only see her lithe body, quivering and exposed to a point past nakedness under her soaking, transparent dress.
At the servant’s cottage he shares with his mother (Brenda Blethyn), Robbie heatedly types a note he never plans to send, a note with the Anglo-Saxon bluntness of his need to ravage this unattainable goddess. The camera comes in for a close-up as he pounds the typewriter keys and four letters appear on paper: cunt.
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The word is never spoken, nor does Robbie intend it to be seen. He quickly scribbles a formal note to Cecilia, hurriedly dresses for dinner at the Tallis mansion and puts the wrong note in the envelope. The twist of fate that will destroy Robbie’s dreams comes when he entrusts the delivery of the envelope to Briony (Saoirse Ronan), Cecilia’s thirteen-year-old sister. Because Briony has a schoolgirl crush on Robbie, she reads the note. And that four-letter word, barely understood by a prepubescent girl, hits her like a sledgehammer. Briony, whose active imagination takes the form of writing plays, had already become feverish when she peeked through an upstairs window at Robbie and her sister by the fountain. That’s when her emerging sexuality morphs into toxic revenge.
Wright and Christopher Hampton, whose script is a model of page-to-screen adaptation, show extraordinary skill in building this hothouse of carnal tension. While family and guests gather at the mansion, Robbie and Cecilia retreat to the library. Though horrified that Briony has seen the note, they can’t help giving vent to uncontrolled desire. Robbie backs Cecilia against the bookcase. Her legs — kicking out from an elegant green gown — wrap around his waist. At the moment of penetration, Briony enters the dimly lit library and sees what she perceives as an act of violence. The impact on her is shattering. Later it will lead Briony to accuse Robbie of raping her fifteen-year-old cousin, Lola (Juno Temple). Briony’s false witness, for which she will seek atonement for the rest of her life as a nurse and author, forever alienates Cecilia from her family and puts Robbie in jail for three years, until he is released and joins the war effort.
These scenes, which make up the first third of Atonement, transform McEwan’s prose into images that burn in the memory. For starters, we learn that the film will be seen entirely through Briony’s eyes. And what eyes! Saoirse (pronounced “seer-sha”) Ronan is the film’s glory. Note to Oscar: This is acting of the highest order. Ronan simply takes your breath away.
And as Atonement shifts into the battlefield, McAvoy and Knightley deepen their performances. Cecilia, now a nurse caring for the wounded in a British hospital, arranges a brief, awkward meeting with Robbie before he ships out that only intensifies the poignance of their broken lives. Life has hardened them to pain, but not to each other. Knightley’s star has never shone this brightly. And McAvoy is a dynamo, nailing every nuance in a complex role. They are heaven-sent acting partners, radiating a heroic spirit that insists on the primacy of love. That’s how they are seen by the adult Briony, also a nurse and played by Romola Garai with uncanny skill as she comforts a dying French soldier with words out of her still-fervid imagination.
Briony’s offer to recant her testimony against Robbie has little meaning to him on the beach at Dunkirk, where he waits to be evacuated with thousands of wounded and dying British soldiers. Wright sums up a thousand of McEwan’s words with one continuous five-minute-and-thirty-second shot that catches the horrific reality of war and its surreal components as Robbie walks past bombed buildings, a beached barge, a singing choir, stranded show horses and spinning ferris wheel.
In tandem with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, editor Paul Tothill, production designer Sarah Greenwood and costume designer Jacqueline Durran — awards, please, for all of them — Wright achieves a vision that will be talked about for years. Still, Atonement wouldn’t be the crowning achievement it is if Wright defined himself through decor. His intent is to blow the dust off historical drama to find its beating heart. In only his second feature, following his lively 2005 take on Pride and Prejudice, Wright, 35, leaps to the front ranks of directors. His talent is combustibly exciting, his work with actors exemplary, his approach palpably sensual. There is nothing yesterday about Atonement. Wright speaks in fresh, startling ways to a new generation.
In the end, Wright brings Atonement back to words, words with the force of ideas behind them. The older Briony (Vanessa Redgrave) is giving a TV interview about her latest novel. Redgrave isn’t onscreen for very long. She doesn’t need to be. Held in fierce close-up, she demonstrates what great acting is. And her words, reflecting on life’s tendency to wound and art’s propensity to heal, cut to the quick. Behind her shocking revelations lies a puzzle: Can an artist make amends for her sins through her art? Where Atonement is concerned, the only sin would be to miss it.