Picture the fastidiously literary Ian McEwan at a pitch meeting, holding his nose. Then picture director Joe Wright he of the broadly grinning Pride & Prejudice talking the talk with his unerringly commercial radar for what will fly across the Atlantic. Then you'll grasp the abyss between McEwan's brilliant novel Atonement and Wright's palatable, unchallenging movie. The novel turns on a childish crime that alters the fate of a snobby British family and thrusts its younger generation into a world war, one of whose casualties will be the centuries of class privilege. Wright cross-pollinates the first half into an Oscar-buzzy brew of Masterpiece Theatre and Upstairs, Downstairs with a touch of bodice-ripper, and the second into a cheap knockoff of a 1940s war movie. There's a satisfying sexual crackle between Keira Knightley, shrewdly cast as a brittle flapper with womanly potential, and an astutely carnal James McAvoy as her below-the-salt lover. But where McEwan whispers, Wright shouts. In all the clamor of an operatic soundtrack overlaid with the rhythmic thud of typewriter keys and drumbeats of war, McEwan's most thrilling theme how fiction atones for life (and sometimes, doesn't) falls by the wayside, leaving our lovers trapped in a drippy Hallmark card, snuggling on a windswept beach. Forever sepia.
Joe WrightKeira Knightley, James McAvoy, Romola Garai, Vanessa Redgrave, Brenda BlethynChristopher Hampton, Ian McEwanPaul Webster, Tim Bevan, Eric FellnerFocus Features