Ian McEwan's acclaimed novel Atonement arrives with stately grandeur on the big screen, keeping that same sense of dreamy otherworldliness and unsettling nervous energy. It's a boldly unconventional period melodrama and a stunning showcase for director Joe Wright who, after his crash-zoom take on Pride & Prejudice, draws another memorable performance out of Keira Knightley.
Knightley plays Cecilia, a reluctant heroine forced to suffer the consequences of a child's lie. Her fate is sealed on one lazy day on the family estate in 1935 when little sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan) sees her near-naked by a fountain with gardener Robbie (James McAvoy). A couple of miscommunications later and Briony - crucially described by Cecilia as "an unreliable witness" - accuses Robbie of molesting her cousin. Cecilia is inconsolable, all at once realising her feelings for Robbie and watching as he's hauled away to jail. A few years later he's shipped off to war, still mourning what could have been.
Like a previous adaptation of McEwan's work, Enduring Love, the story is impossible to categorise, although both probe the mindset of remorse. The uncertainty of how events will unfold is also riveting. Wright plays it up with beautifully composed scenes tipped slightly off-kilter - figures looming out of velvet darkness, or a face caught in peripheral vision. The effect is haunting as are the fractured pieces of the past, which slowly build to one last shocking revelation. It's a tenuous conclusion, working better on the page than it does on screen, but there's no denying the film's raw power. Flourishes of 'hyper-reality' are grounded by sterling performances from Knightley (defined by a strong and elegantly poised backbone), Romola Garai as the 18-year-old Briony and, above all, James McAvoy. He exudes the essence of humanity in a truly soulful picture.
Atonement is out in the UK on 7th September 2007.