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Stars: Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Romola Garai, Benedict Cumberbatch, Saoirse Ronan, Vanessa Redgrave, Juno Temple, Gina McKee, Harriet Walter, Brenda Blethyn

Director: Joe Wright

This beautifully-shot version of Ian McEwan's prestigious best-seller certainly has its moments, but seems to exist in a rarefied atmosphere removed from reality. Impressionable 13-year-old Briony (Ronan, later Garai), already an embryonic writer, has a serious teenage crush on Robbie (McAvoy), university-educated son of the housekeeper at her swish family mansion in 1935 Surrey.

Robbie, almost unknown to himself, is deeply attracted to Briony's elegant sister Cecilia (Knightley), an incident between the two being misinterpreted by the jealous Briony. When a graphic note, mistakenly (and rather improbably) inserted into a letter from Robbie to Cecilia is entrusted to Briony, she reads it, then hands it to her sister.

After watching the two consequently have violent sex in the family library, a vengeful Briony wrongly identifies Robbie as the rapist of house guest Lola (a very promising debut by Temple). He goes to jail, and is only released after five years (seems a lot) to serve in the wartime army.

It's rather disturbing to find out that some later scenes are made up - I would rather have not known - by an older Briony (now Redgrave), who has become a famous writer, in her lifetime quest for atonement. Indeed it's not really clear what is fact and what is fantasy in the film's last half-hour.

Performances are appropriately 'upper-crust' and all decent, although Blethyn is completely wasted as Robbie's mother, and the talented Cumberbatch fares scarcely better as a family friend. Wonderfully well set in period, the film remains, for all the good qualities that may well result in a shower of awards, curiously bloodless.

David Quinlan

USA 2006. UK Distributor: Universal. Colour by deluxe.
122 minutes. Widescreen. UK certificate: 15.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 1, Violence/Horror 1, Drugs 0, Swearing 2.

Review date: 02 Sep 2007