Se­crets and lies

A de­mand­ing novel is bril­liantly trans­lated into film, writes Michael Dwyer ATONE­MENT Di­rected by Joe Wright. Star­ring James McAvoy, Keira Knight­ley, Saoirse Ro­nan, Ro­mola Garai, Brenda Blethyn, Vanessa Red­grave, Juno Tem­ple, Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch, Gina Mc

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Reviews Film -

THE re­cur­ring sound ef­fect in Atone­ment – of a man­ual type­writer tap­ping out let­ters – is sig­nif­i­cant for a num­ber of rea­sons. The film be­gins as “The end” is typed by 13-year- old Bri­ony Tal­lis in an up­stairs room of her fam­ily’s man­sion in Sur­rey. A bright, pre­co­cious and self-ab­sorbed girl with a fer­tile imag­i­na­tion, Bri­ony has just com­pleted her first play.

It is the first of sev­eral fic­tions she will cre­ate dur­ing the course of the drama. Be­cause of what she con­cocts next, her play is never staged. That is noth­ing com­pared to the dev­as­tat­ing reper­cus­sions of the lie Bri­ony tells that evening. It’s a reck­less claim, founded in her ado­les­cent mis­un­der­stand­ing of two scenes she wit­nesses.

Both in­volve her sis­ter Ce­cilia (Keira Knight­ley), a re­cent Cam­bridge grad­u­ate, and Rob­bie Turner (James McAvoy). The son of one of the house­hold staff (Brenda Blethyn), he, too, has re­turned from Cam­bridge, where the Tal­lis fam­ily paid his fees.

From her up­stairs win­dow Bri­ony ob­serves – and mis­in­ter­prets – a play­ful tus­sle be­tween Ce­cilia and Robbi. Kept apart by class di­vi­sions down the years, their pas­sion for each other is re­leased on what is the hottest day in the sum­mer of 1935. When Bri­ony next sees them to­gether, she mis­takes an act of love for ag­gres­sion, prompt­ing the ac­cu­sa­tion that will change all three of their lives per­ma­nently.

The com­plete sig­nif­i­cance of Atone­ment as the ti­tle of the film, and the Ian McEwan novel on which it is based, is not clear un­til much later in the story, which trans­fers seam­lessly to the screen in Christo­pher Hamp­ton’s con­sum­mate adap­ta­tion.

Hamp­ton, in con­sul­ta­tion with di­rec­tor Joe Wright, cre­ates in­spired cin­e­matic so­lu­tions to ad­dress the in­te­rior na­ture of the novel, and the book’s coda, which pre­sented them with their most dif­fi­cult chal­lenge. The film makes in­ge­nious use of the de­vice whereby key events are re­vis­ited from dif­fer­ent perspectives.

Wright, an ex­pe­ri­enced television di­rec­tor, treats this ma­te­rial with re­mark­able in­sight, as­sur­ance and vis­ual style for some­one on just his sec­ond fea­ture. He made an en­gag­ing cin­ema de­but two years ago with his re­ju­ve­na­tion of Pride & Prej­u­dice; by co­in­ci­dence, McEwan’s novel is pref­aced with an ex­cerpt from an­other Austen novel, Northanger Abbey.

When the en­thralling nar­ra­tive pro­ceeds to the evac­u­a­tion of Dunkirk in 1940, the gifted Ir­ish cin­e­matog­ra­pher Sea­mus McGar­vey ex­cels, light­ing the ac­tion in painterly tones and catch­ing the chaos in a vir­tu­oso ex­tended track­ing shot. Through­out its time-shift­ing struc­ture, Atone­ment is ex­pertly crafted by a team that no­tably in­cludes art di­rec­tor Sarah Green­wood, cos­tume de­signer Jac­que­line Dur­ran and com­poser Dario Mar­i­anelli.

All de­serve to be se­ri­ous con­tenders at Os­car time next spring, as do the lead­ing play­ers. McAvoy is mar­vel­lously ex­pres­sive in a touch­ing, riv­et­ing per­for­mance. On the ev­i­dence of this and Pride & Prej­u­dice, Knight­ley truly blos­soms un­der Wright’s di­rec­tion.

In­ter­na­tional film-mak­ers have been lin­ing up to sign Saoirse Ro­nan, the young Car­low ac­tress, and now we un­der­stand why. Speak­ing with a cut-glass English ac­cent, she demon­strates a dis­tinc­tive, per­fectly un­der­stated screen pres­ence, bring­ing Bri­ony, the bare­foot girl on the jacket of McEwan’s novel, vividly to life in all her youth­ful com­plex­ity.

Child­hood’s end: Bri­ony (Saoirse Ro­nan) sets the tragic train of event in mo­tion

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