Young Briony (the talented Saoirse Ronan) is an aspiring writer with a crush on house employee Robbie Turner (James McAvoy). She's a young romantic who hasn't gained full control of her emotions yet, and she makes a mistake that gets Robbie into severe trouble. He's accused and condemned for crimes he is innocent of, and the course of his life is irreversibly changed. Further complicating matters is that her older sister Cecilia (Knightley) is also in love with Robbie, and Robbie is in love with her.
The film then shifts to a wartime setting, where Robbie has chosen to serve in the trenches rather than serve further prison time. Cecilia and Briony (now slightly older, played by Romola Garai) have become nurses, estranged due to Briony's actions years earlier. Cecilia and Robbie still aspire to be together, yet there is the little matter of a war going on, and they continue to pay for Briony's mistakes.
Wright expertly films some of the more pivotal moments from varying angles, and we see them at different times through different character perspectives. It's an expert touch, amplifying the power of these moments and making it understandable how actions look different to people who are getting only part of the story. Briony sees moments between her sister and Robbie that are shocking to an adolescent girl's eyes, yet they are romantic and majestic in the eyes of the lovers.
McAvoy, excellent in this year's Starter for 10, is heartbreakingly good as a man who falls victim to a young girl's childish impulses. McAvoy is quickly developing into one of cinema's best bets. His pained yelp when Cecilia beckons Robbie to "come back to me" resonates in the bones. He and Knightley have some of the year's best chemistry, even though they don't spend much of the film together. Knightley, whose character is equally tragic, is as luminous as a film star can be. Her performance is the best yet of an already impressive career.
Although she has a very small part, Vanessa Redgrave makes a lasting impression in the film's final moments. I won't ruin the significance by disclosing her part; I will say that her few moments in the film drive everything home. Brenda Blethyn has but a few seconds on screen as Robbie's mother. When she smacks on a policeman's car screaming, "Liars!" she most certainly makes her mark on the picture.
Dario Marianelli's stirring score ingeniously incorporates typewriter keys, an appropriate sound considering the consequences of a letter Robbie types early in the film. Seamus McGarvey deserves kudos for his stunningly beautiful cinematography, which captures the lushness of the English countryside, as well as the dark gray of war. His use of lighting and shadows is breathtaking on many occasions. One extensive tracking shot, where Robbie walks along a devastated shoreline with a gigantic Ferris wheel in the background, is one of the year's more impressive technical achievements.
This film could've been one of those stuffy English period pieces overflowing with sun hats and poetry readings, but it is far from it. Wright tells a tragic story that spans nearly 60 years, and he employs a raw intensity sometimes missing from this sort of film. Atonement is a sad romantic story that could've so easily been a rapturous one, were it not for a few childish mistakes. Its impact is a lasting one.