Literary adaptations abound this season but few have been as highly anticipated as the cinematic interpretation of Ian McEwans best-seller by screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons) and director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice).
Although the chronology is scrambled as the perspectives shift, the basic story revolves around an incident that takes place at the Tallis country estate in rural southeast England on a sultry summer day back in 1935, when naïve 13 year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) sees her glamorous older sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), with Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the son of their housekeeper (Brenda Blethlyn).
Imaginative and impetuous, Briony tells a lie which results in Robbie being sent to prison for sexual assault. The rest of the narrative examines the cultural and emotional consequences of that fabrication from war-ravaged London, where 18 year-old Briony (Romola Garai) seeks redemption as a nurse, and Robbie serves with the British forces in northern France to decades later, as an elderly Briony (Vanessa Redgrave) explains her contrition to a television interviewer (director Anthony Mingella).
Seamus McGarveys cinematography is cleverly evocative, particularly during the massive 1940 Dunkirk evacuation, when the camera lingers on a Ferris wheel turning idly, a man exercising on a pommel horse, the slaughtering of horses for food, and exhausted soldiers singing hymns on a bandstand. But theres an aura of artificiality and a lack of sexual chemistry between Knightley and McAvoy, as the wronged lovers, that results in emotional sterility. Its as if everything is too self-consciously dramatized and emphasized by Dario Marianellis score. Indeed, nothing feels real until Vanessa Redgraves surprising concluding twist.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Atonement is an admirable 8 but the great epic drama seems to have lost its heart somewhere along the way.