As on Pride & Prejudice, Joe Wright made sure to cast actors who were of ages comparable to the characters they would be playing in Atonement. As before, he and the producers were set on Keira Knightley as their leading lady.
Wright clarifies, “I felt that Keira, who is such an intuitive actress, was ready to play Cecilia because the truth is that the part is a character role rather than that of the pretty leading lady. It’s a very complex role; Cecilia is not a particularly likable person to start with, but she is redeemed by her love of Robbie and by his of her.”
Knightley says, “I had a great experience on Pride & Prejudice; Joe is a sensational director. He makes sure that every actor sees the story from their character’s point of view. After reading Christopher Hampton’s beautiful script, I knew I wanted to play Cecilia.”
Paul Webster notes, “The strong working relationship that Joe and Keira developed over the course of filming Pride & Prejudice meant they had a mutual understanding and respect that would enable them to effectively approach Cecilia together.
Wright enthuses, “Keira was not afraid of playing Cecilia as cold and difficult, and awkward in her own skin. She was brave in taking this role, since many actors are terrified of being disliked as the characters they play on-screen. The resulting performance is, I believe, her boldest and strongest to date.”
For Knightley, there was considerable appeal in playing a character so different than any she has played in her career thus far. She explains, “The reason I liked this character is because she is a woman, of the kind Bette Davis might have played. She knows who she is, yet she doesn’t know which direction to go in, so she’s quite conflicted. She doesn’t realize that actually she fancies Robbie; she’s grown up with him, and at first won’t admit that there’s anything between them beyond a kind of brother-and-sister relationship. But, there is, and when we meet them they’re on the brink.”
The male lead role of Robbie Turner, the son of the Tallis family housekeeper with a Cambridge education courtesy of the Tallis family, called for an actor who, notes Wright, “had the acting ability to take the audience with him on his personal and physical journey.”
McAvoy saw the story as “epic, romantic, and really about what it is to be a human being. It affected – and still affects – me hugely, and I hope it will do the same to audiences. Atonement also explores the truth of how we are at our best when we are being attacked, and Robbie Turner is forced to fight on two fronts.”
Wright adds, “I’d first seen James in a play about seven years ago, and I could tell how good he was. I’d offered him parts twice before, and this third time was the charm. James has working-class roots, and that was very important; Robbie’s story is that of a working-class boy whose life is often at the mercy of the snobbery of an upper class family. James also has a deep soul, and isn’t afraid to show it. The character is described by Ian McEwan as having ‘eyes of optimism,’ and James has those. When he smiles, you smile; when he cries, you cry.”
McEwan adds, “Later in the story, it is written that ‘there is a stamp of experience in the corners of his eyes.’ Through James’ performance, you feel the pathos.”
Even so, as McAvoy notes, “Joe would tell me, ‘Don’t beg them to cry,’ meaning, the audience. Robbie was one of the most difficult characters I’ve ever played, because he’s very straight-ahead. In the 1935 scenes, the family doesn’t see him as one of them, yet he doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder. Joe was very keen not to be manipulative with the audience, so he emphasized underplaying. So, later in the story, when Robbie explodes, you really feel it.
Learn more about Atonement in Movies.gather.com.