The Venice International Film Festival has always been, to my mind, the more civilised, more sedate counterpoint to the brash and bawdy “festival du film” that is Cannes. Less frantic and arguably more cultured, La Biennale di Venezia (which also hosts art, architecture and theatre and dance strands) remains an unalloyed joy. The kind of place where filmmakers stroll the Lido virtually unmolested and where the likes of Alfonso Cuaron and Spike Lee happily attend other directors’ screenings without the need of a closed off viewing area.
This year Venice hits 64, and begins tonight with Joe Wright’s Atonement. Adapted by Christopher Hampton from Ian McEwan’s allegedly unfilmable novel, Wright’s follow up to his rather impressive debut, 2005’s Pride & Prejudice, is, for its first half at least, a towering achievement, a compelling, richly detailed, moving examination of morals, lies, and class prejudice, beautifully acted, and strikingly shot by Seamus McGarvey. Set, initially, over a hot summer afternoon and evening in an English country pile in 1935 where 13-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Roman), a wannabe writer with an overly active imagination, catches her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) in flagrante with the housekeeper’s Cambridge-educated son Robbie (James McAvoy). Later, she (wrongly) accuses him of raping her cousin, a childish indiscretion that instigates a chain of events that has life-altering repercussions for all concerned.
Storytelling, perception, and the appearance of truth are fundamental here, with Hampton’s script hewing to the book’s complex three time period structure and the story occasionally folding back on itself so that certain key events can be seen from differing points of view. Wright even uses the writer’s tool, the typewriter, as a musical accompaniment, the insistent click-clack, click-clack of the keys inducing an ominous, unsettling tone that pervades the rest of the picture. He takes an almost voyeuristic delight in how he shoots this first act, playing much of it wordlessly, relying, instead, on a smoldering look here, a stolen glance there, to generate not just an indelible sexual frisson but a palpable air of menace, the sultry day unleashing hitherto repressed emotions/attractions in not only the fatalistic couple, but others too.
But it’s when the story leaps forward five years to war-ravaged France, that, for me, the film relaxed it vice-like grip, as the Brideshead Revisited/Gosford Park flavourings of the first act surrenders to the horrors of combat, with McAvoy’s soldier stuck behind enemy lines, struggling to make it to Dunkirk and a boat to England. We follow his journey inter-cut with flashbacks of how he and Cecilia, who, as a result Robbie’s arrest and subsequent imprisonment, has shunned her family, eventually reignite their affair in Blitz-torn London as well as a parallel strand with the now 18-year-old Briony (Romola Garai) training as a nurse in a London hospital besieged by bloody troop casualties. There’s such a stiff upper lip quality to much of this, one can only assume that Brief Encounter must be Wright’s favourite film.
It’s not that this second section is any less confident or impeccably crafted — a five-minute Steadicam shot involving a thousand extras on the beach where the British Forces are amassed is truly astonishing — but it feels like a different film, and I wanted to continue with the one I was already watching. By shifting the focus (albeit slightly) from Cecilia and Robbie’s (doomed) fatalistic romance, Wright unwittingly undermines much of the tension (sexual or otherwise) he so masterfully engineered in the opening half hour as Briony, desperate to atone for her adolescent self’s transgression, seeks to assuage her guilt: first through the viscera of the wards, and later through literary reinvention. (The epilogue features Vanessa Redgrave as the elderly Briony, and now a successful author, finally laying to rest the ghosts of the past in a frank television interview conducted by Anthony Minghella — yes that one.)
That said, Knightley, as with Pride & Prejudice, clearly she thrives under Wright’s direction, turning in yet another fine performance that should silence her detractors once and for all, etching subtly, depth and simmering passion into Cecilia’s cut-glass exterior. But even she is outshone by McAvoy. So good in The Last King Of Scotland (and so overlooked, too, because without his counterpoint, Forest Whitaker’s Amin wouldn’t have been half as effective) McAvoy asserts his position as Britain’s brightest male star with a performance of such range, dignity and humanity that it should, if there’s any justice, find recognition come awards season. Wright, meanwhile, confirms that Pride & Prejudice was no fluke. With a painter’s eye for colour and composition — the vivid poison ivy of Cecilia’s dress; her crimson lipstick; a ravishing shot of McAvoy’s silhouette, stark against a poppy field — and an assured grasp of actors, he brings vigour and freshness to what could, in other hands, have been a sterile, stuffy costume drama.