James McAvoy and Keira Knightley in 'Atonement'

James McAvoy and Keira Knightley in 'Atonement'

"Atonement" begins on a sweltering 1935 summer day, on the grounds of an English country house buckling, imperceptibly, under the weight of forbidden fruit.

The atmosphere of elegant rot suffusing director Joe Wright's film, a beautiful follow-up to his 2005 version of "Pride and Prejudice," is impeccable—almost parody-worthy. Now and then you find a period picture that affords this sort of rightness of scale and satisfaction. The first half of "Atonement" is akin to watching a tennis match between two very good writers, one a novelist, the other a screenwriter and playwright, both adept in covering the meticulous grass court that is Ian McEwan's story.

The second half of "Atonement" works, too, though it is more prone to cinematic swooning. That is, at least until Vanessa Redgrave shows up. She cuts through the dross and gets straight to the heart of the matter, in the role of a novelist haunted by a series of unfortunate events she set into motion years ago. Redgrave is on screen only a few minutes but in that time, mostly in searching close-up, the question at the core of McEwan's book—how can a person atone for a life-altering mistake made at a precarious age?—burns brightly in Redgrave's eyes.

She is one of three actresses playing the role of Briony Tallis. At the start, Saoirse Ronan portrays 13-year-old Briony as cool determination incarnate. The girl has written a play, and visiting cousins are to perform it for, among others, Briony's older sister, Cecilia, played by Keira Knightley with an imperious air of privilege. She's excellent and doesn't beg the audience's sympathy for a second.

In her way Briony, like Cecilia, is attracted to the girls' lifelong friend, Robbie (James McAvoy). He is the gardener's son. A promising student, Robbie is being supported educationally by the head of the house. He is bright, kind, good and about to pay for it. The lad writes Cecilia a hastily considered mash note containing a scandalous word. He crumples it, types out a new, more decorous letter of admiration—but mistakenly delivers the first one by way of impressionable Briony, who reads its contents.

Earlier that day Briony has witnessed a mysterious encounter from her window: at a fountain, Cecilia stripping down to her skivvies in front of Robbie and diving in the water. Why, exactly? Adroitly, screenwriter Christopher Hampton ("Les Liaisons Dangereuses") first shows us what Briony sees, from a distance, and then minutes later jumps back to reorient our perspective and fill in the details regarding this mutual seduction simmering between Cecilia and Robbie.

McEwan's story is a grave mixture of observational subtlety and melodramatic plotting, and director Wright, adding his own pictorial flourish, honors that mixture. Briony witnesses more than one act of sexual transgression in a fateful evening. Events lead to Robbie, working-class scapegoat, paying for a crime he did not commit. "Atonement" then jumps to 1939. Robbie and Cecilia are onetime lovers now separated by a war and Briony's lie. The 13-year-old, meantime, has become a nurse in training, and Ronan's scarily effective performance is taken over by Romola Garai's. If anything, Garai's melancholy intensity is even more intense than Ronan's; at any rate the transition is seamless. Then the brilliant Redgrave completes the character.

In the realm of World War II-set historical romance "Atonement" is certainly the juiciest thing to come along since "The English Patient." (Late in "Atonement," "English Patient" director Anthony Minghella makes a cameo as Redgrave's television interviewer.) It's a smaller, more concentrated work than Minghella's film, even with scenes such as Robbie's arrival at Dunkirk, wherein a panorama of wartime chaos is revealed in a single take lasting several minutes. The scene is pretty remarkable. It's also a bit self-conscious, and while I admire much of the work of composer Dario Marianelli—he scored Wright's "Pride and Prejudice," wonderfully—in this and other scenes in "Atonement" his sentimental impulses run tastefully rampant.

The actors keep theirs firmly in check. Knightley and McAvoy are just right as the class-crossed lovers, and their crucial sexual encounter in the library is every bit as specific and evocative as McEwan's description of it. Here's why "Atonement" works, ultimately: The right person adapted the book and knew how to condense the tale without reducing it. Hampton is a genuine wit; one shudders to think how the same material would have fared as adapted, say, by David Hare (he did "The Hours," which felt more like "The Days"). The 1935 section of the story, with its upper-class rotters and predators, pulls you into an exceptionally well-spun web. The cinematography by Seamus McGarvey captivates without trying to wow you; the soft edges and shimmery light looks lovely, but not postcard-lovely. The sound designers and mixers selectively amplify key details: a bee, Briony's typewriter, a rotary fan, a ball being bounced against a wall, jangling the nerves of the lady of the house, who suffers, as Knightley's Cecilia pronounces it, from "mee-graine."

In the novel and the screenplay the near-saintly Robbie lacks size and dimension as a character, however shrewdly McAvoy plays him on screen. This holds "Atonement" back somewhat. And because "Atonement" rests on a grim accusation made by a vexing young character who is not meant to be "liked," I wonder if American audiences will be as keen to embrace the picture as the English have been. Yet I find myself thinking about Briony's words and actions days after seeing the film. Wright's sophomore effort is an exquisite exercise in period filmmaking and an elegant solution to a book that defies adaptation, devoted as it is to a shadowy interior life. McEwan's theme traces how an imagination can perceive, recast, revise and reinterpret a single, fateful event across a lifetime. "Love is all very well but you have to be sensible," the young Briony observes early on, her eloquence outstripping her experience. Hampton and Wright have been more than sensible when it comes to "Atonement." They've responded intuitively to a tale that is half art and half potboiler, like so many stories worth telling.

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