First Night: Atonement, Venice Film Festival

Bold and emotional, McEwan's novel hits the screen with style
Click to follow

Joe Wright's fine new film of Ian McEwan's best-selling novel, is a deceptive affair. From a distance, it may look like a more earnest version of one of those P G Wodehouse comedies about love and confusion in English country houses.

The story opens during a balmy summer before the Second World War. The same ingredients could easily be fed into farce: a couple is caught in flagrante in the library; a precocious teenage girl reads a letter containing lewd anatomical references not intended for her eyes; two chubby little brothers run away by dead of night; we have a case of mistaken identity and a mother howling in rage at the local constabulary to let her son go. Here, though, there is little levity.

It is 1935, the hottest day of the year, and the burgeoning love affair between the beautiful, aristocratic Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and housekeeper's son Robbie (James McAvoy) is about to be derailed in catastrophic fashion. Right from the pounding of the typewriter key that opens the movie, there is an ominous note.

The strength of the film lies in its extraordinary visual imagination and in the intensity the young actors bring to their roles.

Christopher Hampton's screenplay (apparently written with McEwan's blessing) throws in flashbacks and flashforwards. Once or twice, we even see the same events twice, from different perspectives. From the first hour, we could be in Gosford Park. In the second, we're plunged into a world of Saving Private Ryan as we see the British Army making its "strategic withdrawal" after Dunkirk. Just as Wright and his designers don't skimp from portraying the emotional wounds the young lovers and the Iago-like teenage sister inflict on one another in 1935, nor do they have any qualms about showing the physical scars on so many of the retreating soldiers.

The frequently gruesome imagery and the labyrinthine plotting don't disguise that this is still a romance, albeit a very barbed one. Wright and his brilliant cinematographer Seamus McGarvey throw in shots of lovers running after buses and one astonishing steadicam sequence which lasts for several minutes, encompassing thousands of extras.

Atonement isn't smooth. There are not only disconcerting shifts in time but also lurches in tone and jarring changes of perspective. Even so, this is a formidable achievement for a young director making only his second feature: formally bold and with a huge emotional undertow.