The movie starts in 1935, at the kind of idyllic country house weekend that figures so prominently in P.G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie. The story's protagonist is Briony Tallis (played at age 13 by Saoirse Ronan), a priggish but highly imaginative girl with a developed sense of drama. She is at that stage of development when sex seems like the most loathsome thing in the world, and primed to put the worst possible construction on the building passion between her worldly older sister, Cecelia (Keira Knightly) and the handsome gardner, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy). This situation is worsened by the fact that Briony is totally ignorant of sexual dynamics, as might be expected of a child of that age and time; her too-proper mother and father are no sort of confidants; and everyone else suffers from the stupid "British" reticence to explain anything and instead pretend that nothing happens. Further, Briony had had a child's crush on Robbie herself that was clumsily rebuffed. This builds up to Briony convincing herself that Robbie is a "sex fiend" and must be guilty of sexually assaulting Briony's slightly older cousin, Lola (Juno Temple), and giving evidence against him that sends him to prison.
The story then cuts to 1940. Robbie has been allowed to join the Army out of prison, and is cut off from his unit in France during the retreat to Dunkirk. Cecelia has gone into nursing and has cut herself off from her family. Briony, now 18 (played by Romola Garai), has realized the enormity of her behavior five years earlier, and has followed her sister into nursing practice as a way to support the war effort while trying to get in touch with her estranged sister and find a way to make amends.
I won't give away how the plot works out, but any way it goes, it is a sad story.
The story is beautifully photographed, especially in and around the country manor. it is more graphic when dealing with scenes of suffering in the nursing hospitals, and gets positively Heronimus-Bosch-like in the scenes dealing with the Dunkirk evacuation. I found this part quite remarkable: one usually sees the Dunkirk beaches portrayed from a distance, the resolute British soldiers stoically queueing up to be taken off by the heroic sailors. This was a quite different and probably more real depiction. Some are shown standing guard or grimly digging in for defense; others are kicking a ball around; some having a hymn sing; some have gotten into the local tavern and are drinking themselves stupid; and some have started up a carnival to ride the merry-go-round and the Ferris wheel.
"Atonement" has won several awards and nominated for many more, including seven Golden Globes, often touted as an Oscar predictor. The director (Joe Wright) and most of the principals, including, deservedly, Ronan, have been mentioned, but I think the cinematographer and art director should be strong contenders when the Academy Awards come around as well.
Highly reccommended for adults.