British Director Eyes Award Glory with (12/07)

Pride and Prejudice precedeth Atonement—in life as well as in the films of Joe Wright.

In only two features, the 35-year-old Londoner has established himself as a sure-handed master of breathtaking filmmaking. Not since Steven Spielberg (for whom Wright is now inevitably working at DreamWorks) has there been such a confident, elegant craftsman.

Wright has followed one richly detailed vision of rustic English life with another—from Jane Austen’s abiding novel of 1813 to Ian McEwan’s prize-winning bestseller of 2001—roughly a distance of a century and a quarter. The guns of 1812 never penetrated Austen’s idyllic countryside, but the growing shadows of Nazism from 1935 drive Atonement’s aristocratic denizens out of their cozy isolation into world-shaking turmoil and tragedy.

Pride & Prejudice was the first thing I had ever done with a happy ending,” admits the man who entered feature films after a distinguished apprenticeship in British miniseries (2000-2003: “Nature Boy,” “Bob & Rose,” Bodily Harm,” “Charles II: The Power and the Passion”). “Prior to that, I’d always thought happy endings were a copout and against my principles somehow—and I grew to find happy endings or wish fulfillment important.”

Treading very softly across its minefield of plot surprises, it has to be said the happy ending Focus Features’ Atonement arrives at is a kind of cover story. “Being about the nature of happy endings, the nature of storytelling and the capacity for fiction to destroy and to heal, I do see Atonement as a logical follow-up to Pride & Prejudice.” Plus, it’s in time past.

“I’m fascinated by the past. My father was born in 1906, and he was quite elderly—65—when I was born, so I’ve always been intrigued with that whole period of pre-war and during the war…what his world had been like and, therefore, who he had been within that context. In 1935, he would have been 29. It’s a world I’ve always been very interested in—even from the time when I was a teenager.”

The words that Wright lives by—and films by—were first uttered at the outset of The Go-Between, a movie made a year before he was born by director Joseph Losey and adapter Harold Pinter from L.P. Hartley’s novel: “The past is a foreign country—they do things differently there.” The speaker was Michael Redgrave, an old and impotent man who flashbacks over a formative summer 50 years earlier in which tragedy is triggered by his interference and carelessness as a 12-year-old love-letter carrier between a highborn lady of the estate (Julie Christie) and a roughhewn tenant farmer nearby (Alan Bates).

“I think The Go-Between was a reference for McEwan as well,” injects Wright. “McEwan talks about The Go-Between when he talks about Atonement. There are definite parallels.”

Atonement covers essentially the same manicured turf but goes longer and deeper into the central tragedy of young lovers accidentally doomed by a not-understanding teenager. The culprit here is 13-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), who fights the boredom of a sultry, sun-drenched summer by writing plays and dragooning her younger cousins into performing them. Another outlet for her overactive imagination is the son of the family housekeeper (Brenda Blethyn), Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), for whom she privately pines, but he only has eyes for her older sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley). From afar, Brioney witnesses an intimate scene between the two and, perhaps tilted by jealousy, fabricates her Truth of what’s going on, eventually leading to a crisis she regrets for life.

Her search for atonement is played out in other time zones and by two other actresses. The narrative jumps forward five years to when Britain is in full-blown war. The Tallises have turned into nurses and Robbie has been flung into northern France, where he sees the surreal chaos of Dunkirk. For this section, Briony has turned 18 and into Romola Garai.

The story concludes with Briony near death, being interviewed about her latest (and, she says, last) novel, called Atonement, which tells the tale that has disfigured her whole life. Vanessa Redgrave, Sir Michael’s first-born, plays this regret-ridden role brilliantly, but—lest you think the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree—Wright pooh-poohs the coincidence. “That’s a strange piece of synchronism,” he insists, quite straight-faced.

“The truth is, Vanessa is someone whom I’ve admired as an actress and as a woman for a long time, and I just wanted to work with her, but I had to cast little Briony first. Usually, what happens when you’ve got a few actresses playing the same role is that you cast in the middle. You cast Nicole Kidman as the middle one, and then you have to find someone who looks like Nicole Kidman and can also act. A really talented child actor is hard to find. So the idea was to cast the young one first, and, therefore, it didn’t matter what she looked like. I think Saoirse is an amazing find. We were very, very lucky. Then, once we had Saoirse, I was very pleased that we were able to go to Vanessa.”

Redgrave committed to the role after one meeting with Wright. Garai, the 18-year-old Briony, was the last to be cast and was obliged to adapt her performance’s physicality to be harmonious—even seamless—with the Briony appearance that had been agreed on for Ronan and Redgrave. All three worked with a voice coach to catch the character’s timbre.

Which actress, you might well wonder, has the slight mole on the cheek—because all three brandish one? “None of them,” says Wright. “I was kind of inspired by that shock of curly red hair that Jane Campion used in An Angel at My Table—the idea that if you have one very strong visual image used by different actors, you realize it’s the same character.”

The mole has a real-life root, Wright admits. “My fiancée and I were staying at a hotel in Italy, and the lady who ran the hotel had an enormous mole on her eyebrow. I thought that would be good for Briony. I reduced the size of it and put it somewhere else on her face.”

The eyes have it as well, he points out. “All three actresses have got quite intense blue eyes. Which is also about the story and about the character—the whole recurring line of ‘If I saw him, I saw him as my own eyes’—so the strength of those eyes is most fortunate.”

A measure of Wright’s cinematic genius is that the spec and the spectacular have places of authority in the same picture. The man who made the moles also makes mountains. He gives an epic sweep to the Dunkirk evacuation—in one stunning traveling shot that is up there with Stanley Kubrick’s trench shot and charge in Paths of Glory.

“The shot on the beach is about five-and-a-half minutes,” he admits matter-of-factly. “There are a thousand extras, and I have no idea how many crew were actually there and how many crew had built the set—a lot. We rehearsed it in one day and then shot it as one take, really. I only had that many extras for a single day, so we took all our resources out of the rest of the Dunkirk scenes and put them all on the beach. The scene developed organically. We had a map of the beach prior, and we started placing things on the beach like the ship, working out our route for the camera to take. Then, the extras arrived at six in the morning of the shoot, and we started placing them. We walked the route over and over and over—about 50 times—and tried to speak to every single extra, at least every group of extras, about what they were doing and what their motivation was.”

As he did in Pride & Prejudice when, wielding a Steadicam, he went into his waltz and got lost in the delirious swirl of extras, Wright and cameraman Seamus McGarvey track Robbie and two corporals as they weave through the mayhem of Dunkirk—mobs of scrapping, vomiting troops, French cavalrymen shooting their horses, soldiers singing hymns at a band, drunken men spinning on a children’s carousel—emulating the Hell of Hieronymus Bosch.

“When I read Atonement, I fell in love with it—and there was a film that happened in my head as I read it.” Did Wright, indeed, realize that film? “Awwww, closer than I have any other in the past. The walk to Dunkirk was a lot more action-driven in the book, but we couldn’t afford to do that. In fact, I came to [producer] Tim Bevan one day and said, ‘We need another $4 million to be able to realize the walk of Dunkirk as it was written,’ and Tim said, ‘I won’t give you a dollar more than $30 million to make an art film.’ I said, ‘Can I have that in writing, please?’ because, suddenly, he was calling it an art film. It felt like a pass—a freedom pass. So I re-imagined the walk to Dunkirk as something very solo—almost like a Yves Tanguy painting—a surreal blank canvas for these tiny figures.”
Quite a different movie would have emerged from the book, had Wright gone with the screen adaptation that Christopher Hampton had prepared for director Richard Eyre.

“The original draft had diverted quite a long way from the novel. It had dropped the idea of the three-part structure as well as the idea of replaying the same moments from different perspectives. It was much more linear, which I think kind of had taken away some paternity. And it had added things I thought were unnecessary. Robbie’s death scene, for instance, was re-imagined as a kind of operatic moment as he waded out toward the boats coming in at Dunkirk and the sea started to turn red. I felt that death was different, that death was something quite small and intimate—a little match being blown out. So I took it right back to the book, and Christopher was very obliging and cooperative about that.”

Where the movie departs from the novel is at the end with the Redgrave interview. “The ending was one of the most difficult things, because it comes after the storytelling and turns into an intellectual study of the situation rather than a progressive narrative.”
The man doing the interviewing (make of it what you will) is Anthony Minghella, the Oscar-winning director of The English Patient—which, Wright insists, was not a reference for Atonement, although its middle portion covers identically the same turf of World War II nurses and soldiers. “Exactly. Which, in a way, is why I didn’t look at that film. I saw it originally when it came out, but I didn’t look at it while I was making this. I did look at The Go-Between again—very much so. Also Bertolucci’s The Conformist.”

At a post-screening Q&A recently, Wright was asked how he chooses what films to make. “I answered that I didn’t really choose the films. It feels like the film chooses me.” This kind of cinematic water-witching has, in the interim since completing Atonement, led him to Gaslight (nee Angel Street), Patrick Hamilton’s old warhorse melodrama about a gold-digging scoundrel driving his rich wife around the bend. (Anton Walbrook did it first to Diana Wynyard in 1940, then Charles Boyer did it to an Oscar-winning Ingrid Bergman in 1944.) Of late, however, he has developed second thoughts: “I considered it for a while—my idea was to make it a contemporary piece—and then I’ve come to realize that it was called Gaslight for a reason, and that reason is kind of pivotal to the plot.”

While contemplating the contemporary, Wright was invited to DreamWorks to film The Soloist. “I’m a big fan of Spielberg’s. In fact, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the second film I ever saw, and it scared the living crap out of me.” The first? Bambi. All that blood-in-the-snow business weighed on him. “I refused to go to the cinema for two years after that because it was the devil’s work.” Under his breath, he adds, “It still might be.”

The Soloist, written by Erin Brockovich scripter Susannah Grant and executive-produced by Tim Bevan, starts shooting in January in L.A. with Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey. Jr. and Catherine Keener. It’s not based on a new or old literary classic, Wright notes. “It’s a true story based on the columns that Steve Lopez wrote for the Los Angeles Times about Nathaniel Ayres, who was diagnosed a schizophrenic 30 years ago and has lived on the streets since, playing a cello. It’s a movie about homelessness. It takes place in 2005.”

Well, welcome to the right century, Mr. Wright. The director smiles, bemused, and betrays where his head is at: “Of course, I’m still seeing it very much as a period film.”