A masterful adaptation of "Atonement"

"Atonement" begins in an idyllic England country home in 1935, where a young girl is taking her first steps toward becoming a writer. Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), whose unblinking blue eyes see more than they understand, is typing on a summer afternoon, hitting the letters with a percussive force. The music of the keys joins in and harmonizes with Dario Marianelli's score in a self-conscious detail that feels exactly right, caught in the lovely soft-gray light of memory.

Ian McEwan's beautiful novel, masterfully adapted for the screen by Christopher Hampton and directed by Joe Wright ("Pride & Prejudice"), is at its heart about language and its power: about the way a lie told by a child — inspired by a letter not intended for her eyes — changes the lives of those who hear it; and how that child later longs to make things right again, to restore the indolent simplicity of that summer afternoon with its clicking keys. Briony, who at 13 still wears little-girl dresses and is expected to amuse her young visiting cousins, yearns for adulthood and the credibility it will bring. She's entranced by the airy confidence of her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley), a careless, slouchy beauty who speaks in poshly clipped tones and who holds a cigarette as if she's doing it a favor.

Cecilia's relationship with the housekeeper's son Robbie (James McAvoy) is puzzling to Briony, and she tries to understand it: eavesdropping on an argument between them, peeking at a letter she was meant to deliver, interrupting a tryst in the manse's dark-walled library. Her innocence isn't exactly shattered, but it's chipped a bit, and in frustration and anger she blurts out an accusation that isn't true. "I saw him with my own eyes," she says, not yet well-versed in the tricks our eyes and hearts can play. The story fast-forwards four years to World War II, where the lives of Cecilia, Robbie and a now-grown Briony (played, in the film's second half, by Romola Garai) are still circumscribed by that lie.

Except for a single, remarkable tracking shot of seemingly thousands of soldiers on a French beach, Wright keeps his story intimate, trusting his fine cast to carry the story's weight. McAvoy, playing a working-class dreamer in love with a vision, movingly conveys Robbie's pain through weary eyes and soft tones. Knightley, in a role more mature than many she has played, takes Cecilia's brittleness and makes something brave from it. Ronan and Garai seem to merge as one, taking Briony from confused child to resolute young adult, striding a London sidewalk in her nurse's uniform as if marching off to war. And Wright finds numerous haunting details: the gossamer swish of Cecilia's ravishing bottle-green dinner gown, the colorless efficiency of a wartime hospital, the sudden brightness of a field of orange poppies, the way sugar scrapes uncomfortably in a stirred teacup at a too-quiet table.

If you've read McEwan's novel, you know what happens in its incandescent final pages; if not, you've got two treats in store, and I wouldn't dream of spoiling either. On paper and on screen, "Atonement" is a story of rare beauty, both wrenching and wise.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Movie review 4 stars

"Atonement," with James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Romola Garai, Saoirse Ronan. Directed by Joe Wright, from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton, based on the novel by Ian McEwan. 123 minutes. Rated R for disturbing war images, language and sexuality. Pacific Place, Seven Gables.