Director Joe Wright is an exuberant young director, but also a firm classicist, and the tension between these two modes is apparent in Atonement, for better and worse. His last film, 2005's Pride & Prejudice, was a literary adaptation rescued from staidness by an infusion of fluid steadicam usage and strong performances. It was a good match between old-fashioned material and a hungry young director.
Now in Atonement, Wright is working with a significantly more complex story from the novel by Ian McEwan, but within a similar genre - the early-20th century costume drama, instead of the 19th century costume drama. Once again, Wright gives his material a jolt of style - a feverish green dress on Keira Knightley, strong and focused cinematography from Seamus McGarvey, and the newest entry in the 'super-cool steadicam shot' contest, a lengthy romp around Dunkirk Beach surveying the assembled British Army preparing to abandon the continent on the eve of the fall of France in 1940 (take that, Alfonso Cuaron!)
The thing is - what exactly does a five-minute steadicam shot of Dunkirk have to do with an adolescent girl's overactive imagination and (later) guilty conscience? While it's a fascinating and technically superb shot, I don't see that the tableaux belongs in this movie, in the same way that the long, unbroken battlefield shots in Children of Men did, to establish the world of that movie. Wright's sense of style serves his movie in other places, especially the delicately lit, sexy-scary love scene between Knightley and James McAvoy that triggers young Briony's feverish imagination. But in other places Wright's sense of proportion, and of serving the story and its themes, are unbalanced.
This leaves us with a good, not great movie that I enjoyed but only up to a point. Add to that the ending (SPOILERS!) which has been made out to be a major plot twist but which seems to me to be fairly minor (it only changes our appreciation of one scene and the dialogue-free epilogue, right?) and we have a movie where Wright did his best but may have been outmatched by his complex source material. That said, I still look forward to his next project because any director who approaches this kind of movie with as much boldness as he has can be excused for falling a little short.