The British aren’t coming, then. Again. On its theatrical bow, this assured, evocative and elegant adap of Ian McEwan’s bestseller had homegrown hacks frothing in anticipation of gong glory. Yet Atonement was bafflingly overlooked in the Best Actor, Actress and Director categories at this year’s Oscars. That won’t stop us cheering it on as the classiest big-scale tear-tugger of the last couple of years, earning James McAvoy Stateside recognition from prospective producers, if not the Academy.
McAvoy stars as Robbie, a groundsman for the family of posh totty Cecilia (Keira Knightley) during the sultry summer of 1935. As class-crossed sexual tensions mount, Cecilia’s precocious pre-pubescent sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan) makes a life-shattering accusation against Robbie that condemns the lovers to tragedy and herself to a lifetime of penance. Following Briony across eras and perspectives to old age (cue Vanessa Redgrave), Atonement ultimately unfurls itself as a moving meditation on guilt, loss and the power of storytelling.
Proving that Pride & Prejudice’s romantic ache, dreamy visuals and palpable sense of time and place were no fluke, director Joe Wright also coaxes another surprisingly meaty performance from Knightley. What’s more, he makes a heartthrob of the unconventionally alluring McAvoy. A scene in which the leads piercingly convey desire, doubt, sorrow and hope via the clipped-vowel niceties of afternoon tea and a dropped spoon is the stuff of showreels. There’s technical wonder too, in Wright’s painterly eye for composition and his audacious (alright, flashy) five-minute tracking shot across the soldier-strewn beach at Dunkirk.
If only the extras were as impressive. Still, the otherwise perfunctory Making Of does show how the Dunkirk set-piece was achieved in a single day, placing such strain on the steadicam operator that he collapsed during take four.
Meanwhile, the affable Wright’s commentary and the deleted scenes reveal a filmmaker with both a healthy dose of self-doubt and a lucky streak (several quality moments stem from happy accidents and time constraints). It’s just a pity his good fortune didn’t extend to Oscar night...