Ian McEwan’s acclaimed, formally adventurous 2001 novel Atonement has been translated to film with remarkable care, making it one of the few wholly satisfying movie versions of a literary success, and an instant favorite for this year’s awards season. This tale of passion, class, youthful recklessness and thwarted romance is more than just a prestige picture—it’s a hauntingly poignant drama that gains much of its power from the daring narrative stratagems of an author at the top of his game.

Joe Wright, the British TV director who made a superb feature debut with his spirited 2005 adaptation of the Jane Austen classic Pride and Prejudice, cements his reputation as a major new filmmaker with this even more demanding project. The movie spans several decades and moods, transitioning from a genteel love story in a pre-World War II world of idyllic privilege to a harrowing odyssey of struggle and heartbreak amidst the war’s chaos. Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons) capture it all with consummate skill and intelligence.

The movie instantly suggests the book’s narrative gamesmanship as the sound of a clacking typewriter accompanies the camera’s headlong tour of the mansion belonging to the upper-class Tallis family in 1935 Surrey, England. The typing comes from precocious 13-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), who is putting the finishing touches on a play she’s written for the homecoming of her older brother Leon. Briony is a bright, dreamy, overly dramatic and self-absorbed girl, whose volatile mix of imagination and immaturity sets this fateful story in motion.

Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) has for years been fighting her attraction to Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the Cambridge-educated son of the family housekeeper. On this momentous day, Briony, who herself has long had a crush on Robbie, spies a strange encounter between the two, as Cecilia strips to her underwear and climbs into a fountain to retrieve a broken piece of a vase. Briony is also a witness when a farcical miscommunication leads Robbie and Cecilia to finally act on their long-suppressed sexual desire. When an ugly scandal erupts at the estate later that evening, Briony’s jumbled feelings lead her to accuse Robbie, an impetuous act which puts an end to his promising future.

The story then jumps ahead to 1939, with Robbie an ex-con who has joined the infantry and has one brief reunion with Cecilia, now a nurse in London, before reporting for duty. Stationed in France, Robbie later joins the hordes of weary soldiers in retreat and awaiting rescue on the shores of Dunkirk (in a bravura one-take sequence of organized chaos). Briony, meanwhile, is now 18 (and played by Romola Garai), and also toiling as a nurse, in part to assuage her guilt over the damage she’s done to her sister and the unfortunate Robbie. The resolution of the relationships of these three characters is one of constantly evolving narrative twists that will startle and overwhelm unsuspecting viewers.

Screenwriter Hampton masters the daunting task of condensing McEwan’s sprawling, complex tale into a dense two-hour running time; as in any literary adaptation, readers may complain about what’s missing, but he has truly caught the essential spirit of this intricate novel. In his second theatrical effort, Wright brings tremendous energy to every scene, abetted by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey’s artful lighting and Sarah Greenwood’s richly detailed production design.

Knightley, Oscar-nominated for Pride & Prejudice, is again perfectly cast as the mercurial beauty Cecilia, but the film truly belongs to the much-employed McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland, Becoming Jane). The tragic, proud, vulnerable and empathetic Robbie is his breakthrough role, proof that this is a leading man with a terrific future in movies. Casting director Jina Jay also deserves a special nod for her achievement with the character of Briony; you truly believe that Ronan, Garai and Vanessa Redgrave (as the aged Briony) are the same person seen at different stages in life, and all three actresses are marvelous and compelling.

A sophisticated blend of cerebral storytelling and emotional immediacy, Atonement should be warmly embraced by critics and audiences longing for something more than movie escapism.