'Knightley!" shouts Joe Wright down the Claridge's hotel corridor. The reply from his leading actress, who is changing for a Vogue shoot (ah, isn't she always?) is a muffled giggle. They sound more like high-spirited kids than the great young hopes of British cinema. Yet together, Wright and Keira Knightley have already produced one hit (Pride & Prejudice, in which she starred as Elizabeth Bennet) and now a ravishing adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel Atonement. For Wright, it is clearly a labour of love.
"There's two hours of film and I've been thinking about every moment of those two hours for two years, right?" Now settled into an armchair and smoking a roll-up, Wright speaks with some feeling. This project was never going to be easy. Atonement, which follows the character Briony Tallis as she makes good a childhood mistake, is an epic reaching from 1935 to 1999 (imagine The Go-Between crossed with Saving Private Ryan).
Wright inherited a script from Richard Eyre and Christopher Hampton, but decided he wanted to start from scratch. (It was "what all screenwriters dread" Hampton has admitted.) Gradually, with input from McEwan, a new script emerged, closer in structure to the book. Then Wright's real work began.
Often described as "meticulous", he seems to have overseen every aesthetic choice in Atonement, from the wallpaper of the Tallis family home ("ripe, pattern over pattern") to the shape of the mole painted on the character Briony's face, a visual innovation that isn't in the book. "It's a device to tie together the three actresses playing her [Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave]. I also liked the idea that she was marked since birth, and that the mole looks a little bit like a teardrop."
Wright spent "a long time" with costume director Jacqueline Durran looking for the right shade of green for Keira Knightley's evening dress, a livid poison-ivy. "It had to feel rich enough, and deep enough. Also it's quite a modern colour, one that would have been quite shocking for 1935. Keira's colouring works well with those tones."
You don't normally hear that sort of sentence from – how to put this? – a straight man. Wright, 35, makes me think of a young David Bailey: jaunty, slightly macho and at the same time, an unashamed aesthete. He grew up in Islington (where his parents ran the Little Angel marionette theatre) and has a north London edge to his voice. Like Bailey, he struggled with dyslexia and left school at 16 without O-levels. On the strength of his Super8 films and his paintings, he won a place to study fine art and film at Camberwell College of Arts.
His first directorial work was in TV, with the socio-realist drama Nature Boy (2000), inspired by quondam heroes Alan Clarke and Ken Loach. Next he took a step towards baroque with the mini-series Charles II: The Power & The Passion (2003), before embracing his inner aesthete and making two sumptuous period films, Pride & Prejudice (2005) and Atonement. Then there's the ultimate beauty trip, a Chanel advert starring Knightley, which is due from him this Christmas.
"For me, the world is very beautiful and I try to capture the beauty around me. I think if you look long and hard enough, there's beauty in everything and I like trying to find it. For me, it's like a treasure hunt and it helps me personally." (Personally? Well, his girlfriend is the indecently beautiful actress Rosamund Pike. She recently appeared in a Vanity Fair jewellery supplement, but no one was looking at the diamonds.) "To me, there's nothing more beautiful than the human face," he continues. "I think my favourite shot in the whole film is that massive close-up of Vanessa Redgrave towards the end. What a face. And she's hot, too."
One of Wright's techniques here is the tight close-up – giving the impression that we are seeing the action through the eyes of the young writer Briony. "I was interested in experimenting with scale, as if the people
were tiny figures or puppets that she is playing with, the story being about a writer's attempt at controlling life."
In one key scene, Briony witnesses her sister Cecilia, played by Knightley, and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) in flagrante. Here, I happened to notice, Knightley has a shoe on in one shot and then off in another. Was he making a point about Briony being an unreliable narrator? "Nah, that was a continuity glitch. But I wanted to keep the shot because I liked it, because at the moment he penetrates her, they both lift off the ground for a moment, in a kind of suspended levitation, a bit like a Chagall painting. It also reminded me of a moment in a production of Venus and Adonis that my mum and my sister worked on for the RSC where Venus's feet floated off the ground when she kissed Adonis for the first time. There's a lot of interplay between weight and weightlessness in Atonement, so I kept that shot in regardless. 'Cos poetry is more important than... pedantry." Don't mistakes annoy you? "They upset me massively, but one is always striving to do something perfect so it's good that one never does."
Next we have to talk about That Long Shot. In the section about the Dunkirk evacuation, there is a take that lasts for five-and-a-half minutes continuously – a directorial calling card that is already attracting critical plaudits. It must have taken some orchestration.
"We had about 1,000 extras, young men from Redcar and Sunderland, gathered together in a large sports hall. Speaking to them made me feel like Monty. I explained everything we were trying to do, organising them into groups while we had 10 hours of rehearsal, with Danny and James and Nonso [the leads Daniel Mays, James McAvoy and Nonso Anozie] fully integrated, not allowed to go to their trailers. Then we went for a take and the light just freakishly appeared. We were blessed, really. A lot of us were crying as it happened."
There's a great deal of action in that one take. Some men are singing hymns, others are drunk and still others are shooting horses. That didn't go down well at test screenings in LA. "It was hilarious, right – not a single person commented on the word 'cunt', or the child rape, but people got really angry about the horses, writing on their questionnaires 'Shame on you!'" (No horses were harmed in the making of Atonement. They were members of Equine Equity to a mare.)
The idea, says Wright, was to create a 360-degree world, in real time. "It's a patriotic scene, in a good way, not a nationalistic way. McEwan's father was at Dunkirk, so it reads like an homage to his father's experience."
Wright's father was also part of that generation. "Dad was born in South Africa in 1906, and was my age in 1941. So I've always been fascinated by the 1930s and 1940s because I thought if I understood that period, then I'd understand him better."
Consequently, Wright always felt out of step with his peers. "I just wanted to listen to Nöel Coward and ponce around in a silk dressing gown, which made me slightly unpopular with the other kids, but fuck 'em.
"I wanted to be cool, but I'm not. When Tarantino hit with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, I did worry. I thought: no one's ever gonna let me make a film. For a while, I tried to be untrue to myself, being a bit tough and hip and using gangster rap soundtracks. But it doesn't work. It doesn't suit, darling." The golden boy of period drama cracks a smile. "Don't print the 'darling'." *
'Atonement' (15) opens on 7 September
Keep 'em rolling: Cinema's one-take wonders
Touch of Evil (1958) - Orson Welles
The opening shot (mimicked in Robert Altman's 'The Player') starts with a bomb being planted in a car, and ends with its detonation
I Am Cuba (1964) - Mikheil Kalatozishvili
The camera moves across a roof, then, thanks to periscope technology, underwater in a swimming pool. Joe Wright's favourite long shot
Goodfellas (1990) - Martin Scorsese
The shot follows Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco from their car, through kitchens and corridors, to their table at the Copacabana nightclub
Russian Ark (2002) - Alexander Sokurov
The entire film is one unedited Steadicam shot. But is it 90 minutes of rich Russian historical pageant or an over-long experiment in formalism?
Children of Men (2006) - Alfonso Cuaron
An outstanding car chase with Clive Owen is captured by a swivelling camera rigged under the vehicle's roofReuse content