Sin duty

Dec 19, 2007 at 12:00 am

Many people think the Coen brothers' No County for Old Men will nab the Best Picture Oscar in 2008. In fact, the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures just gave the bloody flick their top award, the first major award of the 2007 season. In a post-Miramax world, where multimillion-dollar awards campaigns can unseat critical faves in favor of critical duds like Crash did in 2006, this doesn't necessarily mean squat. But if one were to imagine a fair playing field, where mini-majors and major studios couldn't actually buy votes, then No Country's darling position would probably be claimed by director Joe Wright's adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel, Atonement. A lush, flawlessly performed movie set before and during World War II, it stars Keira Knightley and James McAvoy as class-challenged lovers whose lives are sabotaged by a lie.

"You cannot ask for a better reception in film than Atonement's gotten," Knightley says, beaming during a recent interview in Beverly Hills. "The standing ovation [at the Venice International Film Festival] was pretty special."

The shockingly beautiful — and yes, shockingly skinny — actress, probably best known as pirate-lover Elizabeth Swann from the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, might be overstating the fact a bit, but it's fair to say there haven't been many movies this year that've warmed critics' generally frigid hearts the way Atonement has at the Venice and Toronto film fests. As it opens in limited release in this country, it's Focus Features' best hope for winning the Best Picture Oscar their Brokeback Mountain should have nabbed two years ago.

Wright guided Knightley to a Best Actress Oscar nod for his last movie, Pride & Prejudice, and will likely be there come March as a nominee, but also to again cheer on Knightley for her role as Cecilia, along with rising star James McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland) as her lover, Robbie.

Some have even suggested Vanessa Redgrave — one of three actresses who play Cecilia's sister, Briony — will show up as a Best Supporting Actress nominee too. Her character has strived her whole life for atonement after accusing the unnaturally good and noble Robbie of a rape he didn't commit, an accusation that lands him in jail and eventually on the battlefields of France, where his only thought, his only reason for staying alive, is to return to Cecilia.

McAvoy, a Scotsman recently named, much to his chagrin, the fifth sexiest man alive by People magazine, says the script for Atonement, by Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons), is the best he's ever read. "I thought the character [of Robbie] was just beautiful and beautifully drawn," he gushes, sitting where Knightley will be in a few minutes. "But then there was Joe Wright, who I think is a bloody great director. I screen-tested opposite Keira, too, who just blew me away. She showed me the potential this movie had."

This is because, as Knightley points out, "As much as everyone would like to believe there's an equation that would equal a good film, there's not."

Nobody could be sure with Atonement, but the odds were in their favor. Knightley attributes much of this to the script, too, and Wright as well, but has nothing but glowing praise for McAvoy, who is quickly becoming Hollywood's next great leading man thanks to some impressive turns in everything from The Chronicles of Narnia to Becoming Jane.

"To sound like a complete wanker," she says, as if she's ready to be parodied, "acting is a craft, something that, as an art form, he feels passionate about and wants to better himself at. I find him inspiring to work with. When he came in to do his audition, I'd read with four really good actors. James — who is not exactly tall — was certainly not physically what Joe had described he wanted in Robbie, and yet he walked into that room and it was the most extraordinary screen test I'd ever been a part of. He completely morphs into whatever character you give him. It was to the point that after he left the room, for 10 minutes, we were all just sitting around like, 'Fuck.'"

McAvoy remains, as Knightley calls him, a "completely grounded, sorted bloke." Or, as he puts it, "I've been doing this for 10 years, man. I've had a very slow ascent, if you like. So even Narnia, even if I'd stayed at that [supporting actor] plateau for the rest of my life, I would've been more than happy. This is all surprisingly strange, but I just try to focus on the work." So much so, he won't even read articles, like this one, about himself. He's even having trouble formulating what sort of movie star he wants to be, something he wants to just avoid all together. Yeah, life's tough decisions.

"I think if I tried to be a particular person too hard," McAvoy says, "even a good person, I'd probably fuck it up."

The two actors, along with director Wright, formed a triumvirate that became the heart and soul of the project, supported by a "company," as Knightley and McAvoy calls them, of crew. Together, they pulled off a "miracle of collaboration," McAvoy says, that even reshaped the conclusion of the movie, which was, as Wright and Hampton envisioned it, decidedly more optimistic. The result is an ambiguous mediation on the nature of atonement, particularly atonement for the author who plays God.

"We shot a different ending for the film originally," Knightley says. "It was when Vanessa Redgrave's Briony goes back to [her family's] house, back to the library [where jealousy motivated her accusation], and she sees a vision of Robbie and Cecilia. We were meant to give her this forgiving look, and I couldn't do it. Cecilia does not forgive her. She will never forgive her.

"It was a big thing because Joe thought she had absolutely atoned, and I think it just wasn't good enough," she continues. "I think that's what's beautiful about [the movie]. There aren't any answers." Like life.

This means, come March, if Atonement steals the Best Picture Oscar from No Country for Old Men, Wright will have more than just Knightley's performance to thank her for. That is, if the actress isn't overstating the fact again.

Cole Haddon is a film writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]