Derek Elley is one of Variety‘s finest critics — a guy who knows his stuff all around the race track and the rodeo — but he’s also a British citizen who’s probably susceptible to feelings of national pride, and so you can’t fully trust his rave review of Joe Wright‘s Atonement, which was shown at the opening-night attraction at the Venice Film Festival just a few hours ago.

Knightley, McAvoy in Joe
Wrights’ Atonement (Focus Features, 12.25)

I feel, in other words, that the British film industry has been a nearly moribund thing for so long that you have to process any seasoned British critic reviewing Atonement — a thoroughly British film that was shot with British actors, crew and money on English soil — with at least a half grain of salt. Elley may be speaking God’s truth 80% or 90% of the time in his review, but a little voice is telling me “watch it…hold your horses…deep down he may be cheerleading for the home team.”

That said, Elley is doing cartwheels and somersaults over this Focus Features release which will also play next week in Toronto before debuting in December.

“Rarely has a book sprung so vividly to life,” he begins, “but also worked so enthrallingly in pure movie terms as Atonement, a smart, dazzlingly upholstered version by young British helmer Joe Wright of Ian McEwan‘s celebrated 2001 novel.

“Period yarn, largely set in 1930s and 1940s England, about an adolescent outburst of spite that destroys two lives and crumples a third, preserves much of the novel’s metaphysical depth and all of its emotional power. And as in Wright’s Pride & Prejudice, Keira Knightley delivers a star turn — echoed by co-thesp James McAvoy — that’s every bit as magnetic as the divas of those classic mellers which pic consciously references.

“Released in Europe next month and as a U.S. specialty item via Focus in December, this should reap good returns on the back of positive reviews and figure heavily in upcoming kudo derbies. It proved a popular opener of this year’s Venice fest.

“Though clearly by the same director, film is almost the polar opposite of Wright’s debut. Where Pride took a relatively free hand in reworking Austen’s classic in more youthful terms, Atonement is immensely faithful to McEwan’s novel, with whole scenes and dialogue seemingly lifted straight from the page in Christopher Hampton‘s brisk adaptation.

“And where Pride took a deliberately unstarchy, more realistic approach to Austen’s universe, Atonement consciously evokes the acting conventions and romantic cliches of ’30s and ’40s melodramas — from the cut-glass British accents, through Dario Marinelli‘s romantic, kinetic score, to the whole starchy period look.

“It’s a gamble that could easily have tilted over into farce. But as in Pride and Prejudice, Wright’s approach is redeemed by his cast and crew, with leads like Knightley, McAvoy and young Irish thesp Saoirse Ronan driving the movie on the performance side and technicians like d.p. Seamus McGarvey and designers Sarah Greenwood and Jacqueline Durran providing a richly decorated frame for their heightened playing.”

I’m not saying Elley has necessarily lost hs bearings ro that Atonement isn’t a god, well-made film (I won’t catch it until it shows in Toronto sometime around September 8th or 9th), but we need to hear what a few non-vested smart-ass American critics hae to say. Until a few of these come along we’re in a holding pattern.