It was during the shooting of Pride & Prejudice that Working Title co-chairman and producer Tim Bevan realised Joe Wright was one of the most talented first time directors he had ever encountered and not wishing to lose him he started to look around for what could be his next film. Ian McEwan's best selling novel ATONEMENT had been brought to Working Title by Richard Eyre and Robert Fox with plans for Eyre to direct. Over the course of development Eyre's prior commitments to other projects came to the fore and he honourably stepped aside to make way for Joe Wright to take the helm.
The attraction for Wright in lifting ATONEMENT from the page to the screen was the narrative from the viewpoint of Briony Tallis at three key stages in her life as he knew this would be an exciting challenge for him as a filmmaker. He comments, "In taking the book to the screen the story kind of reveals itself to you as you make it. We are questioning narrative structure, we are questioning points of view, we are questioning one single truth as opposed to multiple truths."
Wright spent a concentrated time working with Christopher Hampton on adapting the book, and says, "When I was first sent the script, it had departed quite a lot from the novel. I thought the book was brilliant and Christopher and I started again from scratch, sticking to the book as faithfully as possible. We had quite a fluid collaboration which was wonderful. I really enjoyed it. It was very exciting and it really got under my skin. I felt I knew the book and knew the script totally and understood every moment of it or at least tried to." He continues, "A book is an illusion, a series of symbols on a page that create a narrative in your mind. There are as many different versions of the book as there are readers of it. I've made an adaptation of the book that happened in my head as I read it."
Producer Paul Webster says, "Once Joe started collaborating and working with Christopher I think the script became richer, more complex, and he brought this kind of vast visual imagination to the project. The issues it deals with are so powerful and common to us all, the idea of emerging sexuality in young people, of intertwining fates, the sense of 'if only I'd have turned right instead of left my life would have been entirely different.'
Ian McEwan, who has witnessed his works being adapted for the screen on previous occasions, also knew the task would not be simple with ATONEMENT. As he says, "It's a kind of demolition job. You've got to boil down 130,000 words to a screenplay containing 20,000 words. In this particular case there are greater difficulties for the screenwriter because this is a very interior novel. It lives inside the consciousness of several characters. I think Christopher Hampton has steered a wise and clever course through the book."
Christopher Hampton admits that adapting a really good book is much harder than adapting a bad one. "I think Atonement is one of the best novels of the last 20 years and to preserve its qualities is a great responsibility."
ATONEMENT, though a period piece, has contemporary relevance as it is about everyday experiences, relationships, emotions, making choices and decisions. With Pride & Prejudice, Wright had illustrated as a filmmaker that he has the talent to interpret stories in such a way that a modern day audience is able to see beyond the time and setting of a story. Christopher Hampton observes, "My theory is the more accurate you are with presenting a period, the more striking the modern aspects of the story become."
"There seems to be an interesting emotional journey at the heart of this," Tim Bevan summarises. "We all have to live through the circumstances of what we do at any point in our life and this is a very acute rendition of that."
PREPARATION AND PRODUCTION
With the script in place, Joe Wright turned to his meticulous preparation of the film itself, actively engaging with every department early on to ensure his vision and the research and expertise of his crew, was married in such a way that once filming began everyone was on the same page. This included a three week rehearsal period with the cast ensuring that by the time the cameras rolled they were all comfortable with their characters and the environment they inhabited.
The look of the three parts of the film have, for Wright, very different identities which he wanted to subtly convey to the audience through the camera work and different colour palates. This involved careful correlation between himself and his heads of departments, in particular the director of photography, production designer, costume designer and make up and hair designer. Wright's ideal was that he would lead each department and in turn they would unify and enhance each other's work with the shared sensibility, which would ultimately translate to the final film. The team worked with a historian and then went on to research and prepare for each period carefully looking at paintings, photographs, films, and searching archives for inspiration to fit the story.
The first part of ATONEMENT is set on the hottest day of the year in 1935 at the Tallis House in Surrey, a strange day when the heat seems to affect the behaviour of the individual members of the house.
The task of finding a house to fulfil the description of the Tallis House in McEwan's book fell to production designer, Sarah Greenwood and set decorator, Katie Spencer. They visited the Country Life archives for research purposes in the hope they would come across properties which could be used to film the interior and exterior scenes at the Tallis House on that fateful day. Stokesay Court in Shropshire emerged as perfect for both.
On the look of the Tallis house producer Paul Webster notes, "Sarah really got into the detail of the piece and paid special attention to what was going on in design in the 1930's. And the idea is that there is a kind of ripeness about the story, everything is ripe to the point of corruption and she has used the patterns of Chintz which are quite popular today, wallpapers and fabrics and costumes echoed all the way through all the elements that were very important to get this very, very dense rich pattern upon pattern idea."
Greenwood describes how her design works alongside the costumes in the 1935 scenes and beyond, "The main difference between Jacqueline's costumes and the patterns that we were using is that her colours are slightly more vibrant than ours - ours were quite washed out and we took them back, so you have a kind of separation between the two, that gives us a contrast to everything that we will see subsequently see in London and Dunkirk."
Greenwood and location manager Adam Richards spent many months scouring the UK for appropriate locations to stand in for the French countryside and Dunkirk before settling on locations in Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Grimsby and Redcar which closely resembled the landscape of Dunkirk with the beach and industrial landscape in the distance.
Wright and his cinematographer, Seamus McGarvey, use the camera not only to capture the story visually but also as a storytelling device in itself, through the movement and techniques applied to it across the three parts of the film. The distinct look that the 1935 scenes have is in part due to the lighting and techniques McGarvey used to give a radiant quality, "We used a particular filter that is basically Christian Dior stockings which create a beautiful glow around the highlights and soften, creating a lustrous feel. However things take a darker turn in the script and we still continue to use this but that sweetness becomes more saccharine as you go on. There is a kind of slightly dark side that keeps surfacing and which is progressed and built upon in the other areas of the film."
For the transition from 1935 to 1940 McGarvey and Wright adapted the camera technique to convey the change from the rich hues of the luxurious setting of the Tallis House to wartime London and France. As McGarvey describes, "1940 and Dunkirk particularly starts stiffer and more symmetrical and then the war comes to London and we adopt a more hand held frenetic kind of jagged approach to the cinematography and that applies to the light as well which becomes kind of harder and more brittle and abrupt."
In addition to the themes echoing through the production design and costumes, there was the distinct look of the three actresses playing the central protagonist, Briony, from their hair and make up through to their costumes. Durran explains, "It was really important to have continuity between the three Brionys. For me it meant keeping the pallet similar, so because we'd started off with Saiorse in her off white pallet, then we carried that on to the pale blue and white of Romola's nurses uniform. So it became absolutely essential that when we got to Vanessa Redgrave, we'd carry on that colour way."
Ivana Primorac carefully created hair and make up that subtly conveyed the period, circumstances and experiences of the characters from the luxury and beauty of 1935 to the effect of war and loss during 1940. As she explains, "The 1935 sequence at the Tallis House has a stylised 1930's theme, the look has been heightened to a level that the British aristocracy would not have been at that time, we have made their world more glamorous. In 1940's London the hair and make up reflects the brutal reality of the time. The look of Cecilia is influenced by the time, the colours, the reality of the period. In comparison the Tallis House feels almost dreamlike, Briony's memories of happier times."
When it came to capturing the Dunkirk action, filmed on Redcar beach Wright took the decision to capture it all in a single steadicam shot. With two thousand local extras plus spectacular production design which included a bandstand, a working ferris wheel, bombed out buildings, a huge beached boat, through to the action which included a choir singing, soldiers riding showhorses through the wreckage and men playing football, this was a bold decision to make.
Wright says, "I thought that we'd do it in a single steadicam shot and just rehearse it. And it was very, very exciting and we spent all day rehearsing it from 6am to 6.30 pm, getting it together and then built it up into a big event and shot three takes. So everyone got excited and engaged and involved and all the extras realised what we were doing and what we were trying to achieve. And it became more like a piece of theatre. It was great, I loved it. And the light was amazing. But I kind of thought the light was going to be good. I didn't question that. I had faith."
In all aspects of the making of the film Wright pays detailed attention, whether it be the exaggerated sound of rushing water when Cecilia emerges from the fountain in a poignant scene with Robbie, or the clipped upper class accents the Tallis family adopt, or the clever interweaving of the sound of typewriter keys into the score, every area, however small, is given equal consideration. Tim Bevan comments on Wright's work ethic, "Joe is an exceptional new director and he's extremely hungry, always the one to leap from the front, be up earlier, work later, striving for a greater quality. He is very detailed in his approach and takes the process very seriously."
Paul Webster adds , "Joe renders incredibly complex things in a very simple way, and in a way you know the general audience can understand. ATONEMENT is a highbrow book with highbrow ideas but they are still universal ideas and he's a great romantic, a philosopher in his way; an interpreter of big ideas in cinematic form. He's one of the most exciting artists I have ever come across."
It was important to Wright to cast actors of a similar age to the characters they would be playing in ATONEMENT. With this in mind when the time came to casting the role of Cecilia Tallis his and Working Title's first choice was Keira Knightley, the recipient of an Academy Award nomination for her role as Elizabeth Bennet in Pride & Prejudice.
Wright says of working with Knightley, "When I was thinking about Cecilia I immediately thought about Keira and I just felt that she was ready for it. It's a character role rather than simply being a pretty leading lady. It is a very complex role and Cecilia is not a particularly likeable person to start with and then she is redeemed by her love of Robbie and his of her."
The working relationship Wright and Knightley developed over the course of filming Pride & Prejudice meant they had a mutual understanding and respect for one another's approach to the making of ATONEMENT.
Wright enthuses, "One of the things I really think is amazing about Keira's performance is that she was not afraid of playing someone who's actually quite cold and difficult and awkward. I think she was brave in taking the role as many actors are terrified of being disliked in the characters they play on screen."
Knightley explains the appeal of playing Cecilia, a character very different to any she has played in her career thus far, "The reason I like the character is because she is a woman. She knows who she is but she doesn't know what direction to go in so she's quite conflicted. She doesn't realise that actually she fancies Robbie who she's grown up with and won't admit that there's anything beyond a kind of brother and sister relationship, and actually it's something quite different."
It was imperative to Wright that his male lead Robbie Turner, the son of the Tallis housekeeper, a bright young man with a Cambridge education courtesy of the Tallis family, be played by someone who had the acting ability to take the audience with him on his journey from a time of hope and prosperity through to the horrors of World War II.
For this crucial role Wright chose James McAvoy. Wright says, "James has working class roots and that was very important in the casting of Robbie, whose story is that of a working class boy who is destroyed partly by the snobbery of an upper class family. James has also got soul and isn't afraid to show it. The character is described as having 'eyes of optimism' and James has those."
McEwan talks of the on screen chemistry behind Cecilia and Robbie, "Keira and James are superb together. I particularly liked the scene in the library. This is a wonderful release of tension for Cecilia - a brittle upper class young woman, divorced from her own feelings. In the library she confronts them in a flood of strong emotion and erotic charge."
Wright first spotted James McAvoy in a play at the Hampstead Theatre seven years ago. When he read for the part of Robbie, Wright said, "he's just so good you can't help but love him and when he smiles you smile, when he cries you cry."
McAvoy was delighted to be cast in the challenging role of Robbie and to have the opportunity to experience working with director Wright. McAvoy says, "Robbie's a bit of an angel really. He's very straight, one of the most difficult characters I've ever played. Joe's so complete - gets the audience, the actors, understands the story he's telling, and he knows how to make actors better. He really falls in love with his characters."
Words echoed by Vanessa Redgrave, who plays the eldest of the three actresses playing Briony Tallis, "He's brilliant with actors and the film was beautifully prepared."
The youngest Briony Tallis is played by newcomer Saoirse Ronan. After many auditions and much searching for a young actress to play the part, Wright's casting director, Jina Jay, came across Ronan, a 12 year old Irish actress with a keen sensibility which belies her years, making her perfect for the role of the fledgling young writer, Briony.
During the six weeks Ronan was on set filming ATONEMENT Wright was consistently amazed by the talent Ronan displayed in playing 13 year old writer Briony, a confused young character experiencing feelings she does not understand towards Robbie coupled with a vivid imagination.
Wright says of Ronan, "A lot of actors draw on their own emotional experience and imagination, in a way they substitute their characters' emotion for their own emotion and there's no right or wrong way of doing it. But Saoirse doesn't do that, she purely imagines what it would be like to be Briony Tallis and has such empathy that she can feel and express the emotions of another human being and I think that's an incredible talent and every day she surprised me and filled me with awe really."
The challenging part of 18 year old Briony fell to Romola Garai who was the last of the three to be cast and therefore had to physically fit into the look that had already been created for the younger and older Briony. Romola also followed the way Saoirse moved and worked with a voice coach to create a similar vocal range.
Completing the stellar cast are award winning actress Brenda Blethyn, who played Mrs Bennet in Pride & Prejudice, Benedict Cumberbatch, Patrick Kennedy, Juno Temple, Peter Wight, Daniel Mays, Nonso Anozie, Gina McKee, Michelle Duncan, Harriet Walters and Alfie Allen.
Of the casting overall, Tim Bevan comments, "There's a very exciting group of young British actors between the age of 18 and 28 at the moment who are definitely a great big talent pool, and Joe has four of them in his film…Keira, Romola, Benedict and James."
In addition to the principal and supporting cast and extras, a thousand local young men were engaged in Redcar to take on the role of soldiers, many injured and dying, waiting on the beaches of Dunkirk to be transported home to safety.
STOKESAY COURT, SHROPSHIRE
Stokesay Court is a Victorian house which forms part of the privately owned Stokesay estate in the county of Shropshire. All the exteriors and interiors of the Tallis home and Robbie and Grace's cottage were filmed at Stokesay.
The London locations include The Old Town Hall, Bethnal Green, which was used for the scene where Cecilia and Robbie meet for the first time since 1935 at the tea house.
The Balham underground station scene in which Cecilia seeks shelter during the bombing was filmed at the closed tube station, Aldwych. The scene where Robbie sees Cecilia walk to the bus was filmed at Whitehall.
A street in Streatham was dressed and used for the scenes set in Balham when Briony at 18 years of age is looking for Cecilia's flat.
The St. Thomas's hospital ward interior and corridors were built as a studio set at Shepperton studios; the storeroom, day room and nurses' dormitory were filmed at Park Place, Henley Upon Thames, and the exteriors at University College, London.
Paul Marshall and Lola's wedding scene was filmed at St. John's Church, Smith Square and the television interview in 1999 when older Briony is interviewed about her book was filmed at the BBC Wood Lane.
The scenes during which Robbie, Mace and Nettle make their way through the French countryside to Dunkirk were filmed on location in Coates and Gedney Drove End in Lincolnshire, as well as Walpole St. Andrew and Denver in Norfolk, and March and Pymore in Cambridgeshire. The poppy field scene was shot in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. The light industrial quarter scenes were filmed at Grimsby fish docks.
Redcar beach took the place of Bray dunes, Dunkirk, including the old Regent Cinema which is on the pier, and the marshland and heavy industrial quarter scenes were filmed at Corus steelworks, also in Redcar.
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