Chalk up another stunning achievement for Joe Wright, who must now be recognized as an auteur with few equals of his age and experience in world cinema. With Atonement, an exacting and relentlessly faithful adaptation of Ian McEwan's 2002 novel about the seismic repercussions of a betrayal in a WWII-era English family, Wright has shaped and refined that uniquely blended style -- at once as calculating as Kubrick and yet receptive and attentive to intimacy and raw feeling -- that made his debut film, 2005's Pride & Prejudice, such an unexpected and welcome surprise. Much like Anthony Minghella, his more senior contemporary who has a bold acting cameo in this film, Wright is an artist who staunchly refuses to run away from the artificiality of cinema. Instead, he co-opts and embraces it. He does so in big ways, such as in a splurgy and acrobatic tracking shot that occurs halfway through Atonement and takes about six minutes to complete, and in smaller, throwaway moments, such as an aggressively painted three-shot on a boat, with Keira Knightley posed exactly in the center.
The year is 1935 and Knightley is Cecilia, a chain-smoking waif who, despite the advantages of her upper class existence, seems on the verge of expiring through sheer boredom. Her only noticeable activity is her flirtation with Robbie (James McAvoy) who is, he tells us, "not a toff." In other words, his situation is closer to that of Elizabeth Bennett in Pride & Prejudice -- he knows how to move in high society, but has not yet found a means to anchor himself to it. When we first see Cecilia and Robbie together, it's through the spying eyes of Cecilia's little sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan), a young teen whose natural tendency is toward fantasy and make-believe -- a passion that's only partly diverted into useful pursuits, like writing. As the movie opens, we see Briony finishing one of her childish plays and recruiting the household members to put it on. Later, she watches from afar as Cecilia and Robbie flirt by an outdoor fountain -- he accidentally breaks a vase, and she sinks into the water to fetch a piece of it, before stepping out again in a mostly transparent dress.