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Romance Amid the Sweep of History in 'Atonement'

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Ian McEwan took on the disasters of a great lie and a world war in his novel "Atonement." Now a new movie takes on the much acclaimed novel. It stars Keira Knightley and James McAvoy.

MORNING EDITION and Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan has this review.

KENNETH TURAN: "Atonement" is an assured and deeply moving film. It's a rich, old-fashioned love story and a potent meditation on the power of fiction to destroy and create. Directed by Joe Wright and starring Keira Knightley, "Atonement" has the kind of expansive sweep that brings "The English Patient" to mind. Knightley stars as the wealthy Cecilia, one of England's bright young things, circa 1935. She's at Cambridge with Robbie, played by Peter McAvoy, the son of a family housekeeper who's there on a scholarship. There was real feeling between them, but it makes both of them nervous and uncertain.

(Soundbite of movie, "Atonement")

Ms. KEIRA KNIGHTLEY (Actor): (As Cecilia Tallis) I don't know how I could have been so ignorant about myself. Am I stupid? You knew before I did.

Mr. JAMES McAVOY (Actor): (As Robbie Turner) Why are you crying?

Ms. KNIGHTLEY: (As Cecilia Tallis) Don't you know?

Mr. McAVOY: (As Robbie Turner) Yes, I know exactly.

TURAN: Then a pair of riveting incidents happen that are fatally misunderstood by Cecilia's younger sister.

(Soundbite of movie, "Atonement")

Ms. SAOIRSE RONAN (Actor): (As Briony Tallis) I know who it was.

Unidentified Man: (As Character) You saw him then?

Ms. RONAN: (As Briony Tallis) Yes, I saw him. I know it was him.

Unidentified Man: (As Character) You know it was him or you saw him?

Ms. RONAN: (As Briony Tallis) Yes, I did. I saw him.

Unidentified Man: (As Character) With your own eyes?

Ms. RONAN: (As Briony Tallis) Yes.

TURAN: Those accusations trigger a series of devastating situations that enmesh all the key characters and take decades to fully play out. Knightley and McAvoy not only have the looks for a sweeping love story, they have the skill to play the film's range of emotions. Plus, they have the will to throw themselves into the proceedings like they really mean it.

"Atonement" is a film of layers and surprises, and Wright's robust directing style, his ability to infuse vigorous emotions into his films, suits it to a T. And the director's decision to stick closely to the book is a key factor in the film's success. Like the best of titles, the full meaning of "Atonement" is only clear in its conclusion. You may think you know, but until you come to the end, you really don't. It's that kind of a novel, and thankfully that kind of a film.

MONTAGNE: Kenneth Turan reviews movies for the Los Angeles Times and MORNING EDITION. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kenneth Turan is the film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Morning Edition, as well as the director of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. He has been a staff writer for the Washington Post and TV Guide, and served as the Times' book review editor.