There is a genre of films that appeals most to me, and that is a successful translation of a novel into a motion picture. A few years ago director Joe Wright did it with "Pride and Prejudice," a delicious version with Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen, and now he's done it again with Ian McEwan's "Atonement." There's a complexity of texture to a good novel that in the best adaptations comes out as an unspoken subtext for the film. That's what gives the film of "Atonement" the kind of resonance that the novel has.
The film begins in 1935, in a gorgeous old English mansion owned by the very wealthy Tallis family, whose daughter Cecilia is on the verge of falling in love with the son of the housekeeper, Robbie, who has been put through Oxford by her father and now intends to go to medical school. But Cecilia's 13-year-old sister Briony, consumed with writing stories, sees them in what appears to her imagination to be an unwanted sexual situation, and in the course of an evening in which an unrelated horrific event takes place that Briony also witnesses, she lies about what happened. Robbie is arrested, and we cut to five years later, 1940, when Robbie is given the choice of entering the army or staying in prison.
Meanwhile Cecily - played by the stunning actress Keira Knightley, has become a nurse; Briony also enters nursing school, and at eighteen begins to comprehend the ramifications of her lies. Robbie (James McAvoy), meanwhile, is now with the remnants of the British army retreating to Dunkirk.
The film explores the possibilities of what might happen if and when Robbie and Cecilia come together again, and then it ends with the aged Briony, today, (she is now played by Vanessa Redgrave) giving an interview about the novel she's made of the entire episode.
Keira Knightley, blessed with an almost unearthly beauty, also has the amazing talent to play without calling attention to that beauty; she becomes Cecily rather than 'playing' her. And James McAvoy is the perfect match for her; again, he is Robbie and not James. The actresses who play Briony - Saoirse Ronan as the 13-year-old, Romola Garai at 18 - must carry the plot of the film while communicating exactly those ages, with the young girl's crush on Robbie, followed by the slow understanding of what has happened, and then of course Vanessa Redgrave as the elderly woman, are utterly believable, never making any false step or becoming self-conscious; we believe implicitly that they are Briony.
Director Joe Wright and his cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, have caught every nuance of the prewar class system we see at the beginning, and the experience of wartime that will tear them all apart. The film is exquisite to look at and unbearably moving at the same time.