Time and memory, love and war, imagination and deception, grief and loss knot into brutal snares in "Atonement," a period romance that edges scene by scene into devastating darkness.
The story begins at a tranquil Brideshead-style estate in 1935, a setting and era when Britain's almost Hindu caste system set most people on a hereditary, fixed path in life. But the Tallis household is more enlightened than that. The lord of the manor has decided that Robbie the gardener (James McAvoy) has the makings of a doctor, and has arranged for his higher education. The daughters of the house are fond of him, as well. Thirteen-year old Briony (played first by Saoirse Ronan and as an 18-year-old by Romola Garai) admires him from afar while luscious older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) is moved on a more primal level.
Briony fancies herself a writer, creating plays about damsels, villains and heroes, but her fervid imagination isn't confined to the page. When she spies Cecelia stripping in front of Robbie one sensuous summer day, she draws unsettling - and as we will learn, misguided - conclusions. She misinterprets more evidence, bolstering her misunderstanding, when she reads a note passed between them and when she enters a room whose door should have been locked.
In a childish fury she maliciously accuses Robbie of an unforgivable crime. With the rest of the family shocked into silence, it is the word of an adult servant against that of a wealthy child, and Robbie's bright prospects crumble. When next we meet he's an infantryman in retreat through the desolate French countryside, stumbling over corpses on his way to evacuation at Dunkirk.
Briony becomes a novelist, spurred by conscience to invent fictions with cheerful, consoling finales. The depth of the guilt that drives her, and the extent of her unreliability as a narrator, is a secret until the film's wrenching final minutes. "Atonement" is a tale of imagination reworking dire reality, and brute fact's stubborn refusal to be concealed.
Christopher Hampton's screenplay respects the literary focus of Ian McEwan's novel without falling into the trap of becoming uncinematic. Director Joe Wright ("Pride and Prejudice") gives the film an elegant sheen and constructs scenes sturdy enough to bear the philosophical weight assigned to them. In one extended tracking shot of Allied troops crowding the French beach awaiting rescue, he combines the sinuous camera moves of Martin Scorsese with the nightmare imagination of Hieronymus Bosch.
Weaving his way through the bedlam, near collapse from exhaustion, McAvoy says as much about the brutality of war through expression, posture and gesture as "Saving Private Ryan" did with a 20-minute battle scene. The actor is silent, but emotions flood through his eyes. At moments like this, "Atonement" is something bigger than period drama.
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