The last time Keira Knightley and director Joe Wright tackled a beloved British novel, they hit the jackpot with "Pride and Prejudice."
Their ambitious attempt to repeat the feat with Ian McEwan's "Atonement" is a less rewarding affair - an impressive expenditure of talent and craft on a complicated, stubbornly book-bound story that remains at a frustrating emotional distance.
Knightley plays Cecelia, a British patrician falling in love with a bright, handsome servant boy named Robbie (James McAvoy) - a class-leaping liaison that ends about as well as it usually does in British stories: scandal, jail, London firebombed.
All goes downhill after Cecelia's jealous younger sister Briony witnesses a rape and vindictively fingers Robbie as the culprit. He's off to prison, leaving the family in a ruin of guilt and recrimination, just as WWII arrives to make the situation even messier.
The movie's opening scenes are quite good, and, given the context, unexpectedly funny. Wright finds a visual language to make sense of McEwan's tricky narrative, which often shows us different versions of the same scene.
There is psychological clarity as well - Robbie and Cecelia on the throbbing threshold of a forbidden relationship, little Briony feeling her first crush turn to betrayal. Brenda Blethyn has a small, vivid role as Robbie's servant mom, who can't quite summon the words to express her misgivings about his naive belief in social mobility.
Once, however, Robbie heads to prison and, through conscription, to WWII, the characters separate and the emotional juice created by their prickly proximity drains from the film. Robbie is trapped in Dunkirk, the estranged sisters in different sectors of London.
Wright attempts to compensate for the growing slackness with mighty, Oscar-ish flourishes of music, sound (the banging of a manual typewriter sounds like a gunshot, which is probably the point) and photography, the highlight being Robbie's surreal journey through the confusion of the massive Dunkirk evacuation.
Wright also nods to great movies about lovers separated by wartime - the streetcar scene from "Dr. Zhivago," the big pullback showing us besieged Atlanta in "Gone With the Wind." These comparisons only underscore the degree to which the epic love between Robbie and Cecelia is something referred to rather than felt.
This is no knock on Knightley (still the greatest cheek-flusher in the business) or McAvoy, forever dewey-eyed with melancholy and longing. They do as well as any actor could hope to do in extended, lavish sequences opposite a photograph or a cigarette.
There is also the matter of the book's unusual conclusion, faithfully adapted here. Robbie and Cecelia's resolution turns into a meta-fictional inquiry into the ethics of autobiography. It's a novelist's literary gambit that, when removed to the screen, adds an additional, troubling factor of pretense, one that leads us to a new and unsatisfying understanding of what we have just seen.
This epilogue provides a nice moment for Vanessa Redgrave as an aged novelist making a frank confession, but it doesn't really pump any more blood into Robbie and Cecelia. They are dangled out of reach as figments of a narrative experiment. *