A haunting and emotionally devastating tale of consequence and opportunity lost, Joe Wright's stellar adaptation of Ian McEwan's acclaimed and richly dense novel takes the formula of the grand romantic wartime period piece and turns it on its ear.
Keeping that book's complicated time-jumping structure intact, the revelations hit with so much impact that, especially with those perspective shattering final few minutes, it's understandable that quite a few audience members more used to the formulaic efforts that often glut the genre will be confused, upset or even feel somewhat cheated.
As much as "Atonement" is a love story and often travels paths that make us believe that it will ultimately be a redemption story of the foolish young Briony, the final result is something far more brutal, damning and realistic - that certain lies once told can never be undone or redeemed. The ending brilliantly conveys the duality of fiction - how fiction can be both devastating and used for good, even if in this case it's merely a placebo to stem a lifetime of unresolved guilt.
Just as revelatory is the sheer quality of filmmaking on display. The 34-year-old Wright delivers direction so smooth that veteran helmers with two decades and a dozen other films under their belt would envy such craft. From the dual-perspective takes of key scenes to the single take shot of the chaos at Dunkirk Beach during the evacuation, Wright seems utterly self-assured and confident, and yet always puts the material first and foremost in mind.
The haunting score ranging from sweeping orchestral tones to typewriter noise is brilliantly effective and memorable. Admittedly the latter half during wartime does falter in pace at times, but it never loses its way - a strong performance by James McAvoy keeps things grounded, he makes your heart break with just a slight vocal crack in the cafe reunion scene.
Knightley holds her own in her few scenes, and the three actresses who play Briony - especially the wonderfully expressive Romola Garai as the flagellant 18-year-old incarnation - are flawless. What could've easily been overdone melodrama is smart, mature and expertly crafted tragedy that's up there with 2005's unforgettable "Brokeback Mountain" in terms of quality and raw power