By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 7, 2007; C01
When it was announced that Ian McEwan's dazzling 2002 novel "Atonement" was going to be adapted for the screen, most of his most ardent admirers had the same reaction: Not this time, Hollywood. Back away from the cameras, and nobody gets hurt.
The very idea of such masterly prose being turned into multiplex fodder bespeaks temerity bordering on blasphemy. How on Earth, we wondered, could anything as banal as a mere movie contain the intricate multiplicity of meanings and emotions and ideas that swim and shadow each other throughout McEwan's perfect book?
Those fierce protectors and pessimists may now stand down. In the almost spookily capable hands of 35-year-old director Joe Wright, the film version of "Atonement" has achieved that to which every literary adaptation should aspire, to respect the original material while freeing it from confining reverence.
Wright, who is following up his promising 2005 debut, "Pride & Prejudice," here proves to be as much a master of his medium as McEwan is of his, using the full cinematic palette of sound, image and performance to create a film that works both as a heady, old-fashioned wartime romance and as a subtle, almost postmodern meditation on narrative, truth and the by turns treacherous and consoling power of art.
From its opening shot, "Atonement" announces its intention to play with the contingent nature of perception: As typewriter keys clack with incessant foreboding, an English stately home comes into view. Only when the camera pulls back is it revealed to be a dollhouse that belongs to "Atonement's" fascinating protagonist, 13-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), who as the movie opens is furiously trying to finish a play she's writing in honor of her beloved older brother. It's 1935, and the Tallises have gathered for a quiet summer weekend, but by the end of the day in question, the family's aristocratic veneer of composure and louche entitlement will be smashed, only to be hastily and imperfectly patched up.
Central to it all is Briony, who is fairly bursting with passion, ambition, anxiety and thwarted desire. The emotional muddle out of which Briony observes those around her, resulting in events that will change their lives forever, can be attributed to adolescent hormones, but also the spirit of a precocious artist coming to terms with her powerful gifts.
When Briony observes her beautiful sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) suddenly disrobe and jump into a fountain while the housekeeper's son Robbie (James McAvoy) looks on, Briony doesn't see youthful impetuousness born of a torrid afternoon. She sees something far more noxious, forbidden and threatening, which is how she will read and report everything that comes later.
Those events, so fraught with both naivete and guile, will later take Briony, Cecilia and Robbie to World War II and even the present day, as that summer weekend continues to reverberate in a series of excruciating twists.
Clearly comfortable with the habits and habitat of the British upper class, Wright luxuriates in beauty during the first part of "Atonement" with a generous eye for foreboding detail as well as a sly sense of shifting surfaces (not since the 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk have mirrors been used to such pointed and pleasing effect). From the faded chintz that drapes nearly every surface in the Tallis house to Cecilia's clinging green chemise that makes her look like a pinned insect in one pivotal and deeply erotic scene, every object and movement seems both spontaneous and drenched with meaning. ("Atonement" has been written for the screen by playwright Christopher Hampton, best known for "Dangerous Liaisons" and "The Quiet American," and bears a whiff of both the former's epistolary structure and Graham Greene's finely tuned moral anguish.)
It's all that useful beauty that makes what comes next such an astonishment, when "Atonement" catches up with its characters in wartime London, where the Tallis sisters work as nurses (18-year-old Briony is played by Romola Garai), and in northern France, where Robbie is with the British Expeditionary Force. After his spirited reinvigoration of "Pride & Prejudice," it shouldn't come as a shock that Wright knows his way around an English manor house, but his stunning depiction of the evacuation of Dunkirk reveals a filmmaker at the height of even more formidable powers.
During a breathtaking, 5 1/2 -minute tracking shot along a blasted-out beach, Wright conveys the madness and chaos that led up to the evacuation, which was almost immediately mythologized as one of Britain's finest moments. Recalling a similar sequence in last year's "Children of Men," Wright's bravura characterization of the desperation of British forces proves not just his prowess in executing such a technically difficult scene, but his ability to capture a far more subtle emotional echo having to do with the strategic importance of stories, whether personal or historical. (The film's sudden shift to the present, while jarring, is handled with similar adroitness.)
"Atonement" is also about the power that storytelling confers, even on someone whose perception has been occluded by artistic and adolescent urges, and about its costs to the objects of the artist's obsessive gaze. Wright has found the pitch-perfect cast to bring each character to life, from Ronan and Garai (who bear an uncommon resemblance to each other) to the sylphlike Knightley, who says little but, radiant and beguiling, conveys volumes as a woman in the throes of longing.
McAvoy, who made his mark in "The Last King of Scotland," here becomes a bona fide leading man, his virility in early scenes later giving way to an even more affecting sensitivity. His scene with Knightley in a London cafe recalls "Brief Encounter" in the sound it evokes of hearts breaking over teacups.
Those tiny crashes may be metaphorical, but for much of "Atonement," Wright adds a soundtrack of clicks, whether from Briony's ever-present typewriter or a compulsively struck cigarette lighter, that prod the story to its conclusion of inevitability but also shattering randomness -- not just for the three principals, but, as the Dunkirk sequence suggests, every life that is touched and torn by war.
The percussive, even violent, aural ostinato that propels "Atonement" provides yet another fascinating layer of expression to a story that, in more conventional or sentimental hands, could have become the movie equivalent of easy listening. Nothing comes easily in "Atonement," especially its ending, which, both happy and tragic, is as wrenching as it is genuinely satisfying.
Like McEwan, albeit with a vastly different artistic grammar, Wright casts a spell every bit as captivating as Briony's tangled web. It's fitting, somehow, that a novel so devoted to the precision and passionate love of language should be captured in a film that is almost too exquisite for words.
Atonement (123 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for disturbing war images, profanity and some sexual content.