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Literary love story

Atonement (R)

3 1/2 stars out of 4

While not Shakespearean in scope, "Atonement" certainly deserves to be included in the same breath as other classic war-based romantic tragedies. With its clipped, mannered and distinctly British tone, it could also be labeled as a period drama with teeth.

Adapted by Christopher Hampton from the novel by Ian McEwan, it was directed by Joe Wright ("Pride and Prejudice"). With the possible exception of "Youth Without Youth," it is the most mesmerizing and haunting movie of 2007. It starts off slow and seems unsure of its footing for most of the first act, but eventually steadies itself and is letter-perfect for the remainder.

In her most fully realized performance to date, Keira Knightley stars as Cecilia, the eldest daughter of a filthy rich English family, who doesn't quite seem comfortable with her privileged station in life. Adding to Cecilia's confusion is her molten-hot attraction to groundskeeper Robbie (James McAvoy), a man far beneath her social standing.

Also smitten with Robbie is Cecilia's 13-year-old sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan), a would-be playwright who can't get anyone to take her seriously. She knows she'll never capture Robbie's attention like Cecilia, but that doesn't stop her from trying. Briony's jealous frustration reaches its breaking point when she reads a note Robbie mistakenly gave her that was earmarked for Cecilia.

In a move that she will regret for the rest of her life, Briony provides false eye-witness testimony to the police at a crime scene, and that testimony results in Robbie's incarceration.

The fallout of Briony's impulsive actions isn't made clear immediately, but it's frequently revisited in the second half of the film, to great effect. Recalling Anthony Minghella's "Cold Mountain" and "The English Patient," Wright's second half, non-linear narrative puts the accent on lost love, things that might have been, regret, redemption and something that resembles atonement for past wrongdoing.

The filmmakers' most impressive achievement is presenting the last hour of the movie with the three principal characters sharing the screen just once. This is a daring and dicey move, but it works thanks to Wright's judicious use of flashback.

Most of the time when directors resort to flashback it's because the screenplay has holes that need covering. But in this case, the device only enhances the story. Hampton and Wright are very sure of the material, and their collective confidence shows in the final product.

Also showing confidence and quiet assurance here is McAvoy. With "Atonement" following in the wake of three straight strong showings in "Narnia," "The Last King of Scotland" and "Becoming Jane," McAvoy has exceeded everyone's already high expectations of him. All he needs now is a smart romantic comedy and he'll easily surpass Colin Firth and Hugh Grant and assume the mantle of England's pre-eminent leading man. (Focus Features)