Imagination typically should be encouraged in children, but an excess of it leads to tragedy in Atonement, a more-than-worthy adaptation of Ian McEwan's 2002 novel. The child in question is 13-year-old Briony Tallis (the wonderfully unnerving novice Saoirse Ronan), a self-serious budding writer who takes her corners at the family's country estate at hard right angles and filters what little happens to her through a melodramatic sheen. She is indulged, but also largely ignored, by her family, which includes her headstrong 19-year-old sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). One day in 1935, from the window of her upstairs nursery, Briony witnesses a bewildering act at a fountain that involves Cecilia and the housekeeper's son, Robbie (James McAvoy), a longtime family friend who has rattled both of the Tallis girls in their various stages of sexual awakening.
Later, in the first of a series of "do-overs," we will rewatch the same scene from a different perspective. On this particular day, which ends in Robbie being taken away in handcuffs, Briony discovers that information is currency, that secrets deliver a tantalizing authority to heretofore powerless little girls. Only later does she realize how one person's vantage, one person's truth, doesn't always square with another's. That epiphany comes in the film's second of three sections, when a now-18-year-old Briony (Romola Garai) trains to be a nurse and attempts to write a novelization of that day in 1935.
This second section includes an unbroken tracking shot that follows Robbie, now an infantryman, on the beach at Dunkirk, France, on the eve of a 300,000-man evacuation. It's a gorgeous bit of choreography and spectacle, but it's also something of a showboat. Atonement is more effective when it doesn't so aggressively show its hand, as in a masterful sequence where, under the influence of Puccini and a stultifying heat wave, Robbie pens a love letter to Cecilia.
Joe Wright, in only his second feature (following 2005's Pride and Prejudice), has fashioned an epic piece of moviemaking in the tradition of fellow countrymen David Lean and Anthony Minghella. It's not quite as brutalizing as McEwan's brilliant source novel - it bears too much of a Great Art buff - but it ravishes nonetheless in its grand exploration of the sins of the daughter and a lifetime spent making reparations.