Imagination typically should be encouraged in children, but an excess of it leads to tragedy in this more than worthy adaptation of Ian McEwan's 2002 novel. The child in question is 13-year-old Briony Tallis (the wonderfully unnerving novice Ronan), a self-serious budding writer who takes her corners at the family’s country estate at hard right angles and filters what little happens to her through a melodramatic sheen. She is indulged, but also largely ignored, by her family, which includes her headstrong 19-year-old sister, Cecilia (Knightley, seductively husky, wincingly angular). One day in 1935, from the window of her upstairs nursery, Briony witnesses a bewildering act at a fountain that involves Cecilia and the housekeeper's son, Robbie (McAvoy), a longtime family friend who has rattled both of the Tallis girls in their various stages of sexual awakening. Later, in the first of a series of "do-overs," we will rewatch the same scene from a different perspective. On this particular day, which ends in Robbie being taken away in handcuffs, Briony discovers that information is currency, that secrets deliver a tantalizing authority to heretofore powerless little girls. Only later does she realize how one person's vantage, one person's truth
, doesn't always square with another's. But that epiphany comes later, in the film's second of three sections, when a now-18-year-old Briony (Garai), trains to be a nurse and attempts to write a novelization of that day in 1935. (The film's epilogue takes place in modern times.) This second section includes an unabashedly bells-and-whistles, unbroken tracking shot that follows Robbie, now an infantryman, on the beach at Dunkirk, France, on the eve of a 300,000-man evacuation. It's a gorgeous bit of choreography and spectacle, but it's also something of a showboat; Atonement
is more effective when it doesn't so aggressively show its hand, as in a masterful sequence early on in which, under the influence of Puccini and a stultifying heat wave, Robbie pens a love letter to Cecilia. This first section is very nearly flawless filmmaking – art-directed within an inch of its life, as befits an overstuffed, overupholstered countryside manse, and sound-designed beautifully, from the delicate ping of a luxe bracelet fastening to the almost-violent clack of a Corona in motion. (The sound of a typewriter is also incorporated, to thrumming, thrilling effect, in Dario Marianelli's score – and what more appropriate audio cue for a work so consumed with the nature of storytelling and the moral responsibility of the storyteller?) Wright, in only his second feature (following 2005’s Pride and Prejudice
), has fashioned an epic piece of moviemaking here in the tradition of fellow countrymen David Lean and Anthony Minghella (who cameos in the film’s final minutes). It’s not quite as brutalizing as McEwan’s brilliant source novel – it bears too much of a Great Art buff – but it ravishes nonetheless in its grand exploration of the sins of the daughter and a lifetime spent making reparations.