Directed by Joe Wright (R)

A girl’s mistaken accusations against her sister’s lover change all three of their lives.


The adaptation of Ian McEwan’s critically acclaimed novel “stands on its own as a singular achievement,” said Joe Morgenstern in The Wall Street Journal. The film is romantic without being sentimental, intelligent without being obnoxious, and “finally shattering in its sweep and thematic complexity.” Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley), a scholarly young woman from a respectable home, falls for Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the son of her family’s housekeeper. When her 13-year-old sister, Briony (Saoirse Ronan), catches sight of their sexual electricity, she jumps to conclusions and wrongly accuses Robbie of a crime that locks him away for years.

Atonement is such a smart, artfully constructed novel that it “practically begs to be screwed up on film,” said Stephanie Zacharek in Director Joe Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton, however, have adapted this modern literary masterpiece with “just the right amount of creativity and insight.” Knightley proves herself more than just “an angular beauty,” while McAvoy is a downright revelation. The two romantic leads channel “the restrained but deeply emotional style of acting” typical of such classic mid-20th-century British films as Brief Encounter and Rebecca. Together they translate the quiet drama of McEwan’s novel to the screen.

Wright’s film is undoubtedly nice to look at, said Lisa Schwarzbaum in Entertainment Weekly. Every scene is “serenely composed,” and Knightley and McAvoy share aristocratic good looks. They speak in a “richly clipped, 1930s-movie–style” and appear as stately and sexy as Burberry models. But all that high gloss suggests the filmmakers think what an audience wants in a literary adaptation is merely “refinement and good breeding.” The film obscures McEwan’s serious themes with “grandiose imagery and hurtling montage,” said A.O. Scott in The New York Times. In attempting to re-create the way the author toys with the conventions of melodrama, Wright has produced a “superficial reading” of McEwan’s work.

A film this wise about life and art can hardly be considered superficial, said Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times. Balancing melodrama with “psychological complexity,” the film is both a sweeping love story and a compelling meditation “on the power of fiction to destroy and create, to divide and possibly heal.” The young Briony was a budding writer who conjured up a fiction that affected her family’s future, and the story the movie tells is intended to provide a form of redemption. Books as McEwan’s don’t come along very often. Adaptations as intense and faithful as Atonement are just as rare.