Director Joe Wright
Starring Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Romola Garai
Ian McEwan's novel, Atonement, is often hailed as a literary wonder of the world for its masterful construction and raw, haunting power. But its time-jumbling, wartime tale of how a petulant British girl's slander destroys lives after she falsely accuses her sister's boyfriend of a crime, has also been branded with the “unfilmable” tag that's been the downfall of many a film adaptation.
So imagine how director Joe Wright must have felt when he got his mitts on the script. Terrified at the pressure? Nah, fairly cocky as it turns out, and for good reason. Atonement is only the Brit tyro's second film after Pride & Prejudice, but his shrewd deviations from Jane Austen's novel sidestepped a descent into chick-flick hell, and made him the first director to show that Keira Knightley can be more than skinny window dressing.
In this film, she's oh-so-lovely Cecilia Tallis, older sister of Briony (played by three different actresses at 13, 18 and OAP). The girls belong to a patrician clan that treats their housekeeper's son, Robbie (James McAvoy), like one of their own until the fateful day when Robbie gives Briony the wrong note to take to Cecilia. Briony reads its smutty contents and soon it's tears and tragedy at teatime and beyond.
Despite all the stifled emotions and cut-glass accents (Knightley's borrowed hers from Brief Encounter), Wright deploys the British period melodrama clichés to his advantage rather than allowing them to render Atonement starchy and lifeless. He's also got a budget to play with and a WWII panorama (Robbie's shipped off to France; Briony becomes a nurse), which he shoves up on the screen. There's one especially stunning tracking shot that takes in the feverish mayhem of Dunkirk as the disintegrating British army waits to escape to Blighty.
As gobsmacking as it is, however, it also underlines the flaw in Wright's often enthralling adaptation – as it sweeps its way past chaos and destruction (physical and emotional), it sometimes leaves the impression of being all dressed up with no place to go.
That said, with Knightley and McAvoy sparking together like flint and stone, and a revelation that's bound to stun, it's this year's prime British Oscar bait.