I'm not sure how much to say about this without giving things away that ought to remain a surprise. I don't think it will spoil anything, though, to tell you that there is a twist, and not the one you'd guess from merely the trailers.
The movie centers around Briony Tallis, who, for most of the film, is the 13-year-old sister of Keira Knightley's character Cecelia. The Tallises are a well-to-do English family who have a lovely country house, beautiful grounds, and several servants. It's not nearly as formal a house as, say, the McCordles in Gosford Park, but there are still obviously unwritten rules about the fraternization of one class with another.
Briony is a rather fanciful girl, and a born writer. In fact, when we very first see her, she is putting the finishing touches on a play that is to be performed in celebration of her brother's return home. The keystrokes of her typewriter even begin to permeate the rhythm of the orchestral score. And, as is the case with lots of writers, there is a certain antisocial aspect to much of her behavior. She doesn't quite know (or care much) how to make herself amenable to other people.
The love story between Cecelia and Robbie (James McAvoy) is as engaging as any epic love story I've seen. This isn't just a seemingly arbitrary pairing up of an "upstairs" with a "downstairs" (Robbie is the son of the housekeeper). And it isn't just mindless sexual attraction, though boy howdy is there ever sexual attraction. They really do seem right for each other. Robbie is Oxford-educated and plans to be a doctor, and as such has quite a leg up on your average up-from-the-bottom suitor with a girl like Cecelia.
The conflict plot is set in motion when Briony, who has a crush on Robbie, witnesses from a window a scene between Robbie and Cecelia that she does not understand. What the film does rather brilliantly here is set Briony up as an unreliable witness. We see things from her perspective - what looks like Robbie humiliating Cecelia in a fairly sexually charged way - and then the film rewinds a bit to show us what really took place between them, which is actually a fledgling expression of their love for one another. But Briony only knows what she saw, and this, added to an intercepted letter and an interrupted sexual encounter in the library, makes her resentment of Robbie complete. She lashes out extravagantly, accusing him of a crime and landing him in prison (and eventually the army).
The film's conclusion is a complicated one. I can't quite sympathize with Briony in the end, and I'm not sure the film expects me to. Her lie was absolutely catastrophic, and irrevocably ruined lives. And her attempt at "atonement" seems painfully and unforgivably inadequate under the circumstances. And yet you can't help wondering what she possibly could have done to make amends. That's not quite enough to make me feel sorry for her, but perhaps it tempers my rage to think that she lived with the weight of what she did her whole life.
This film, like Gosford Park before it, has an unmistakably English sensibility. I found myself getting lost in some of the dialogue and not quite understanding some of the more rapidly delivered lines. I don't think this is a flaw of the film, but it did remind me of the great inferiority I think many Americans sometimes feel with regard to the English. At least, I know I feel that - the sense that nothing we say in our flat American accents is quite as fluent and stylish and intelligent as someone's clipped, graceful Britspeak.
And, since pretty much every critic has mentioned it, I'd be remiss in not doing so. I'm not sure how far into the film it occurs, but I think it's fair to say that the centerpiece of the film in terms of visuals is a ... well, I don't think "stunning" quite captures it ... a rather phenomenal (for lack of a more impressive adjective) continuous shot that takes place on the beach at Dunkirk (though not literally shot there). It reminds me a good deal of that famous crane shot of the street full of wounded soldiers in Gone With the Wind, but it's much longer, and more integral to the story for which it's being used. I didn't know that a camera could express such things, but I've never seen a more perfect picture of overwhelming hopelessness and desolation than the multitudes on that beach, waiting, waiting, waiting...
As much as I'm beginning to loathe talk about what should and will win Oscar gold, I would not be sorry at all to see this join the ranks of Best Pictures.