It would be the last night of Briony Tallis' childhood, that sultry summer evening in 1935 when the imaginative 13-year-old bolted from her family's baronial estate to hunt for her runaway twin cousins.
As the precocious novelist inhaled the animal smells of grazing cattle and rutting humans, she fancied she saw something not just naughty but criminal. Point of view is everything, is it not?
Atonement, Joe Wright's ravishing adaptation of Ian McEwan's exquisitely devastating 2001 novel, is about the day in the life of the Tallis family that reverberates down the century. Among other things, this bombshell of a day divides childhood from adulthood, peace from war, old classbound England from the new, democratic model. Most of all, it divides sin from expiation.
Like L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between, Atonement is a genteel horror story contemplating how an innocent, Briony (played by the startlingly fine Saoirse Ronan), serves as an instrument of destruction and how this trauma defines her life.
When the housekeeper's son, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), asks Briony to deliver a note to her pretty sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley), he commits the first in a series of fateful errors that will haunt both families.
Though Robbie and Cecilia are both students at Cambridge, their servant/master status at the estate makes social intercourse awkward and the other kind of intercourse forbidden. While the electricity that passes between them is grounded in mutual passion, Briony misperceives it as something dangerous and potentially lethal as a bolt of lightning.
Filmmaker Wright, whose free adaptation of Pride and Prejudice opened the parlor window on Jane Austen's novel, is scrupulously faithful to McEwan's most cinematic of books.
Through the eyes of Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton, the significant shifts in the characters' perspectives are even more vivid on screen than they are on the page.
An impeccable craftsman in the tradition of David Lean, Wright possesses the late director's considerable gifts for drawing out his actors.
Smoldering with desire as Cecilia, streamlined and shiny Knightley suggests the chrome hood ornament on a Rolls-Royce. She radiates a steamy cool that sets the film's temperature. As Briony, young Ronan, whose keen eyes see more than she can possibly know, moves through imposing corridors tap, tap, tapping like a human Geiger counter detecting radioactivity. She sets the film's tempo. And as Robbie, McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland, Becoming Jane), radioactive with lust, personifies Atonement's broken heart.
The film's first act, set in the 1930s, and its third, set in 1999, are more emotionally powerful than the intervening section. Act 2, which alternates between wartime London and battle-weary Dunkirk of 1940, has Wright indulging in bravura filmmaking that, however dazzling visually, does not so much advance Atonement as throw it off track.
I gasped at Seamus McGarvey's virtuoso Steadicam shot that follows the unraveling Robbie threading down the beach at Dunkirk, past officers, a knot of singing soldiers, circling around a carousel and back again through a drunken mob. It's technically impressive but narratively hollow, imposing epic sweep onto a detailed character study.
Back in London, Romola Garai takes over for the pubertal Ronan as Briony, age 18, ministering to soldiers as an army nurse and looking more shell-shocked than her charges. The film's implication is that Briony chooses nursing over college in order to atone for her past mistakes.
This theme gains resonance in the film's coda, with the peerless Vanessa Redgrave as septuagenarian Briony, now an acclaimed author, using a BBC interviewer as her confessor. In the end, Atonement sorts truth from fiction as it delivers a shattering kick to the solar plexus.
Atonement ***1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Joe Wright. With James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Saoirse Ronan, Vanessa Redgrave, Brenda Blethyn. Distributed by Focus Features.
Running time: 2 hours, 2 mins.
Parent's guide: R (discreet sex, sexual candor, war and war violence)
Playing at: Ritz 5, Showcase at the Ritz/NJ