With the Ian McEwan novel adaptation Atonement, it’s obvious that Joe Wright—who made his big-screen debut with 2005's deft, affecting version of Pride & Prejudice—knows how to shepherd a novel to the screen. Little of McEwan’s wonderful but slippery novel lends itself to easy translation, but Wright, working from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton, keeps it all in one piece, even the parts about fractured perspectives. But his ability to capture body language exceeds even his abilities not to lose a book in translation. When a girl’s voyeuristic impulse keeps compelling her to watch what she shouldn’t, the weight of her scenes comes not from the look on her placid face, but from the way she leans into the spectacle, and the way Wright’s camera leans with her. When two lovers give over to a moment of passion, the yearning angles of their limbs capture the intensity of the moment. Even when the characters can’t say what they want to each other, or to themselves, nothing escapes Wright’s attention.
As with McEwan’s novel, most of Atonement’s opening segment focuses on unspoken thoughts and the danger of expressing them. The story opens on an English country estate as the country faces up to the inevitability of a second world war. Home from Cambridge, Keira Knightley prepares for a dinner party by arranging some flowers in an antique vase. While attempting to fill the vase at a fountain, she attracts the teasing assistance of James McAvoy, the child of a family servant—and another recent Cambridge graduate, thanks to the financial assistance of Knightley’s father. When the vase breaks and a piece falls into the fountain, she strips to her underwear and plunges in after it, and her emergence clarifies their previously indistinct feelings for each other. Meanwhile, Knightley’s aspiring writer sister (played at the age of 13 by Saoirse Ronan, and as an adult by Romola Garai) watches from the window, unable to understand what she sees, or perhaps unable to admit that she understands it precisely.
From there, things go awry in ways it would be unfair to spoil, as farce gives way to a tragedy, tragedy gets compounded by war, and a character learns that an awakened conscience means less in real life than it does in books. That last revelation plays into Atonement’s concern with the way we tell stories, how time and audiences shift them, and the way those stories change reality. But the headier themes don’t blunt the visceral moments. The generous, sharp performances, especially Garai’s, deepen the story’s emotional impact, as does Wright’s assured, frequently astounding direction. In a seemingly endless shot along a French beach teeming with retreating soldiers, Wright keeps the camera moving past unloosed animals, choirs of soldiers, and crumbling carnival attractions. It’s the kind of spectacle that’s chaotic enough to challenge anyone’s abilities to make sense of it with a story, even those driven by passion and shame to do little else.