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Atonement: Poison pen 

Adaptation ponders the words that wound

What's the worst word you can possibly imagine? Atonement, an alternately intimate and epic adaptation of Ian McEwan's acclaimed novel, answers its own question with a resounding expletive that begins with a harsh "c."

No doubt aware of how modern audiences are desensitized to the shock value of four-letter words, director Joe Wright reveals the taboo term in extreme close-up as a manual typewriter's black letters hammer onto white paper. Perhaps the word's anatomical coarseness would simply cause disapproval or eye-rolling today, but it launches a scandal at the Tallis Estate in 1935, the kind of proper English manor house where the most important things go unspoken.

In Atonement, the wrong word seen by the wrong eyes – in this case, a bookish, sheltered 13-year-old girl – can have tragic repercussions. Wright shows a masterful command of dramatic scale, at first putting a handful of characters under a magnifying glass, then telescoping outward to encompass the spectacle of World War II. Through its sweeping portrait of romance and warfare, Atonement returns to the question as to whether any action can undo the harm caused by a fateful turn of phrase.

On a single day in 1935, the perfectly kept Tallis Estate turns out to be an overgrown thicket of sexual attraction, class barriers, unrequited love and the possibility of war. Lovely young Cecilia (Keira Knightley) returns from university and receives a visit from her fiance, but there's clearly something serious going on between her and Robbie (James McAvoy), a servant's son. Cecilia's father pays for Robbie's college education, so his household status occupies a no-man's-land between the peers and the help.

At one point, Cecilia strips to her underwear and dives into the estate fountain in Robbie's presence. (When she emerges, her damp, long-limbed beauty echoes Botticelli's "Birth of Venus.") The episode has an unexpected witness in Cecilia's 13-year-old sister, Briony (Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring writer with few outlets for her imagination. Briony sees the encounter but can't process its implications, and we get a sense of the girl's sexual innocence in the gulf between Briony and her older, more precocious cousin Lola (Juno Temple, daughter of director Julien Temple).

After showing the fountain incident from Briony's distant point of view, Atonement replays the scene through Cecilia's eyes. Nearly every scene has some kind of double meaning or loaded bit of foreshadowing, and Wright deftly teases out the novel's secrets. Sometimes the symbolism is refreshingly direct. An aristocratic chocolatier (played by an actor with the appropriately caddish name of Benedict Cumberbatch) plans to sell candy bars to the military and offers Lola a sample of "the Army Amo," a name that evokes both passion and ammunition. There's love and war in every bite.

Knightley and McAvoy make as handsome and sympathetic a pair of young lovers as you could find. Both invest plenty of passion into their roles as the characters chafe at their constraints, Cecilia furiously smoking, Robbie tapping out a raunchy mash note that he sends in a disastrous error. The pair seems to create romantic images wherever they go, whether it's McAvoy ambling up a country road in formal dress, or Knightley draping herself languorously across the furniture.

Briony, not Cecilia or Robbie, emerges as the film's main character. Following a series of unlucky coincidences, Briony speaks out against Robbie without really understanding the consequences of her actions. Ronan portrays Briony as something of a voyeur and a control freak – you can see it in the sharp, officious way she turns corners while pacing through the house. The young actress plays her with such sensitivity that we never think Briony behaves out of malice.

Her bearing changes when the film jumps forward to find the 18-year-old woman (Romola Garai) now as a nurse. She tends the wounds of injured soldiers as surrogates for the damage she inflicted on Robbie's future. Garai portrays Briony as watchful, but she's more closed-off, with a heavy expression, as if her guilt has sapped a certain joy from her life. The film's coda casts a famous actress as the elderly Briony, and we can't help but see ghosts of the younger starlets in her face. Taken collectively, the trio virtually offers one of the year's most remarkable performances.

In addition to unnerving scenes of hospital horrors, the film's second half includes Robbie's journey across war-torn France as part of the English retreat at Dunkirk. Wright crafts an astounding tracking shot of a war-torn seaside town, overrun with dispirited English soldiers, that encompasses everything from amusement-park rides to cavalry troops shooting horses. Robbie's story becomes merely one among thousands, like a single grain of sand on a beach.

Atonement has a loaded title, seeming to champion the idea of making up for past mistakes, even though the plot suggests such gestures are futile. The film concludes with a harsh, haunting assessment of writers, indicating that words can never undo the damage they can cause, and a powerful sense of loss pervades the film's final twists. Maybe the worst word you can think of isn't an earthy profanity, but something that conveys failure and futility, like surrender. Or death. Or regret.

For more on film, read CL's PopSmart blog.

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