Stars: *** 1/2
Rating: R for war violence, language and mature themes
Run Time: 2 hours, 2 minutes
Pre-war England has never looked as lush as in Joe Wright’s intensely crafted romantic drama.
Based on Ian McEwan’s exceptional novel of the same name “Atonement” reflects a simpler, easier time. Glamorous Cecilia Tallis (a stunning but rail-thin Keira Knightley) lives in the lap of luxury on her family’s country estate, feigning casual indifference to the attentions of handsome housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy).
The vivid imagination of Cecilia’s younger sister Briony (adolescent wunderkind Saoirse Ronan) sets narrative elements in motion. Briony, a willful sprite who spends hours at her typewriter churning out histrionic theater, discovers Robbie and Cecilia in a compromising position and, feeling slighted by a discovery far beyond her ken, tells a shocking lie with devastating consequences for all.
In the grand tradition of such epic historical romances as “The English Patient”, “Atonement” magnifies its inescapable destiny with dazzling bravura. The onset of WWII scatters friends and lovers to the winds and outs secreted skeletons of the not so distant past. Larger than life melodrama sweeps across the landscape as Cecilia volunteers as an English military nurse and Robbie toils in the death fields of France.
Director Wright steps out of the box, infusing his vast weeper with the glorious fundamentals of sight and sound. Split point-of-view offers the turn of events from both Briony’s immature eye and the flinty precision of adult reality. Action is set to the high-wire notes of clickety-clackity typewriter keys, a staccato rhythm of impending doom and the inevitable march of time.
Pacing falters only slightly with a jarring segue from sumptuous wealth to the harsh certainties of the battlefield. Wright’s skill behind a camera is evident, culminating in a glorious, much ballyhooed extended tracking shot that’s as heartbreaking as it is inspiring.
At its core are the human impulses we love to hate; jealousy, anger and deceit. Star-crossed lovers Cecilia and Robbie are blessed with smart if not sizzling chemistry and enough star wattage to render “Atonement” one of the year’s finest films.