Atonement (2007): Joe Wright’s Adaptation of Ian McEwan Novel Starring Keira Knightley

“Atonement,” Joe Wright’s follow-up to his acclaimed adaptation of “Pride & Prejudice,” is another meticulous literary rendition, this time around of accomplished novelist Ian McEwan, whose works have not always been successful in their transfer from page to screen. (See end note).

Toplined by Keira Knightley, who won an Oscar nomination in 2005 for “Pride & Prejudice,” and James McAvoy, who impressed last year in the Oscar-winning “Last King of Scotland,” “Atonement” is the kind of classy entertainment that’s made to order for Oscar considerations.  And, indeed, the picture represents Focus Features’ only card for end of the year kudos.

World-premiering as the well-chosen opening night of the Venice Film Festival, “Atonement” screens at the Toronto Film Festival, before opening theatrically in December, in time for awards considerations in all categories, in front and behind the cameras.

Post-modern critics and viewers may find “Atonement” to be stiff and stately, a sampler of literary cinema, yet in its combination of epic sweep, tragic vision, impeccable acting, and breathtaking imagery, “Atonement” is a literary rendition that works just as well as a movie, drawing on the distinctive properties of film as a medium. As such, inevitable comparisons will be made to other prestigious literary renditions, like Anthony Minghella’s “The English Patient,” which, among other achievements, swept the 2006 Oscars for its distributor, Miramax.

Strong critical support is crucial for “Atonement,” which opens in Europe before the U.S. The picture likely will get such response since there has not been such a movie (not a good one, at least) in the marketplace in some time; Lajos Koltai’s “Evening,” based on a screenplay by Michael Cunningham, was a disappointment, both artistically and commercially, despite stellar cast, headed by Meryl Streep and Vanessa Redgrave, who plays a crucial part in “Atonement.”

Joe Wright’s two screen adaptations to date are very different in approach and style. Whereas he used a free, modernist touch in translating “Pride & Prejudice” to the screen, in “Atonement,” he remains painstakingly faithful to the source material, McEwan’s novel, published in 2001. As period drama, “Atonement” is not only set in 1935, it also recalls vintage Hollywood and British melodramas of that era, such as “Wuthering Heights,” which also centered on a doomed romance across social class lines, or “Affair to Remember” and “Waterloo Bridge,” all well-acted movies about tragic affairs.

But “Atonement” boasts a stronger, more complex yarn in detailing the devastating and destructive impact of secrets and lies, false accusations and misunderstandings, which are the product of an irresponsible and impressionable teenager.

The tale begins on summer’s hottest day in 1935, in rural Southeast England, in a country estate, where Briony (Irish actress Saoirse Ronan), age 13, is writing an amateurish play to be staged at home. In quick order, all in the first reel, we meet Briony’s bored and seemingly snobbish sister Cecilia (Knightley) and realize her attraction to Robbie Turner (McAvoy), the housekeeper’s son, who, despite rigid hierarchy, has been treated as “member of the family,” or so he is (mis)led to believe.

Stripped to her underwear, Cecilia retrieves out of the pond an object for Turner. All this is seen from the subjective POV of Briony, who then decides to act upon her shocking revelation. Motivated by misperceived carelessness, Briony turns against Turner and implicates him in a crime he didn’t commit, and, expectedly, he is sent to jail. A single stupid act ricochets in many, unanticipated directions, one that will continue to haunt all the protagonists for the rest of the lives.

Cut to five years later, 1940. Upon release, Turner, now a soldier meets Cecilia, who works as a nurse in London, on his way to Dunkirk. Under these circumstances, their encounter is brief, and main event in this section is the efforts of the more mature (she’s now 18) Briona to come to terms with her guilty conscience, seek atonement, and redeem herself . How she does that occupies the film’s last reel, which is emotionally touching and even devastating.

Scripter Christopher Hampton (“Dangerous Liaisons”) has found both an interesting and original way to signal the shifts in time frames, often describing the same scene with the same players from a different anglewithout making it seem repetitious or redundant.

In this respect, Hampton and his director are far more successful than Harold Pinter
and Karel Reisz were in adapting John Fowley’s novel to the screen in “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” to which “Atonement” bears some thematic and structural resemblance. In that 1981 picture, Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep play lovers in two different time frames, Victorian and contemporary.

By necessity, Hampton compresses some crucial events and omits some dramatic persona, and the film’s running time is just about right for such a picture, even if McEwan’s purists might fault some of the scribe’s decisions.

Unlike “Evening,” in which the structure was messy, with too many characters, and confusing historical and narrative changes, “Atonement” represents a precise undertaking in every respect: narrative, tone, acting, and production values.

Hampton and Wright make sure that there is coherence and continuity among the three actresses who play Briony: Saoirse Ronan as adolescent, Romola Garai as the young woman, and Vanessa Redgrave as the older, long-suffering, and repentant Briony. (Incidentally, the same strategy was used in “Evening,” with Redgrave interpreting the older version of a main character, but the whole film was misguided).

One of the pleasures of watching “Atonement” is its casting, from the leads all the way down to supporting actors, with one major exception: Romola Garai, the only sour note in the ensemble and the weakest performer of the three that play Briony. Too bad that she has such a major part.

After a series of films in which she severely overacted, Brenda Blethyn does a good job as Turner’s working class mother, and ditto for the other matron, Harriet Walter as Briony’s mother.

But, ultimately, “Atonement” belongs to the two leads Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. Knightely, still in her early 20s, is quickly emerging as a supremely talented and beautiful leading lady of the first rank, smoothly navigating between mindless popcorn movies like “The Pirates of the Caribbean,” opposite Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom, classy literary films such as “Pride & Prejudice,” and actioners such as “Domino.” I wish I could be as enthusiastic about her turn in the upcoming “Silk,” a dull art film, but it’s not her fault. If “Atonement” is as critically acclaimed and commercially successful as I think it will be, Knightley may get her second Best Actress Oscar nomination in two years.

Knightley has already showed range, but the revelation here is James McAvoy continues to expand and to surprise, after a small, boyish turn in “Chronicles of Narnia” and a more substantial one in “Last King of Scotland,” a film for which, rather unfairly, Forest Whitaker got all the attention-and Best Actor Oscar. Rising to the occasion, McAvoy, who looks more handsome and mature in “Atonement,” proves that he’s capable of handling lead and romantic roles.

Though the ensemble represents a mixture of British, Irish, and Scottish thespians, the speech and accent, always a problems in literary and period films, is quite uniform and consistent.

The meticulous attention to detail that has gone into constructing the evocative narrative and casting down the line, also marks the technical values of “Atonement.” The film benefits from Seamus McCarvey’s multi-nuanced cinematography, which is particularly impressive in the film’s first part, set in Surrey (but shot in Southern England), with its bright summery colors. The sequences set in Dunkirk, which depict the battle, evacuation, and impact on Turner who gets wounded, are impressively shot with Steadicam camera. Production designers Sarah Greenwood and Jacqueline Durran offer rich period detail.

Cast

Robbie Turner – James McAvoy
Cecilia Tallis – Keira Knightley
Briony, aged 18 – Romola Garai
Briony, age 13 – Saoirse Ronan
Older Briony – Vanessa Redgrave
Grace Turner – Brenda Blethyn
Lola Quincey – Juno Temple
Leon Tallis – Patrick Kennedy
Paul Marshall – Benedict Cumberbatch
Emily Tallis – Harriet Walter
Fiona MacGuire – Michelle Duncan
Sister Drummond – Gina McKee
Tommy Nettle – Daniel Mays
Danny Hardman – Alfie Allen

Credits

A Universal Pictures Intl. (in U.K.)/Focus Features (in U.S.) release of a Universal Pictures presentation, in association with StudioCanal and Relativity Media, of a Working Title production.
Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Paul Webster.
Executive producers, Richard Eyre, Robert Fox, Ian McEwan, Debra Hayward, Liza Chasin.
Co-producer, Jane Frazer.
Directed by Joe Wright.
Screenplay, Christopher Hampton, based on the novel by Ian McEwan.
Camera, Seamus McGarvey.
Editor, Paul Tothill.
Music, Dario Marianelli.
Production designer, Sarah Greenwood.
Costume designer, Jacqueline Durran.
Makeup/hair designer, Ivana Primorac.
Sound, Martin Jensen.

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 123 Minutes.