There’s a visually astounding set-piece at the centre of this adaptation of novelist Ian McEwan’s superb tragic romance set before, during and after World War II. It’s a lengthy tracking shot of the beach at Dunkirk during the Allied troop withdrawal from France that snakes and swirls among the battalions of exhausted soldiers and abandoned military hardware and along the bombed beach and ruined seafront promenade to create a panoramic view of hell on earth. It’s the kind of bravura camera shot that deserves to rank alongside the Odessa steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin and the opening of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, but which at first appears out of place in this adaptation of the British literary heavyweight’s much-admired novel.
Fans of the book need not worry, however. McEwan’s complex and heartrending story of curtailed love, penance and recompense is in the good hands of screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons, The Quiet American), who makes a marvellous job of condensing the novel’s multiple viewpoint narrative without abandoning the major scenes and while retaining its discerning insights. Thus remains intact the story of Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley) and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), a pair of childhood sweethearts whose burning love for one another is snuffed out before it has a chance to ignite by the stunningly misguided actions of Cecilia’s immature sister, Briony (Romola Girai).
Aside from the impressively cinematic visualisation of the story, director Joe 'Pride & Prejudice' Wright also elicits fine, heady and emotive performances from his strong cast which includes real pedigree in the shape of Vanessa Redgrave as Briony in the later stage of her life. Even the supporting performances are right on the mark, particularly Benedict Cumberbatch (the benign University Challenge team leader in Starter for Ten here playing a real swine). It’s a rare thing indeed these days for a film to fuse the literary qualities of a great novel with dramatic power and cinematic grandeur. Atonement does just that. (Jack Davis)
General release from Fri 7 Sep.