Helmer finds novel way to make film

Wright tackles 'Atonement's' pristine prose

While the team behind “Atonement,” Working Title’s upcoming take on Ian McEwan’s novel, is nearly identical to the one that triumphed with last year’s “Pride & Prejudice,” there is one big change on this trip through literary land: the relative difficulty of the material.

Adapting Jane Austen for modern audiences is hardly a snap, but it doesn’t test one’s mettle quite like channeling McEwan, whose work is marked by meticulously wrought interior monologues and ambitious narrative architecture.

In the magisterial “Atonement,” by consensus the most cinematic of McEwan’s books, the plot still sprawls across decades compared with Austen’s straightforward, one-year scope. Sensuous shots of the English countryside, so effective in the invigorating “Pride,” give way to a full-scale re-enactment of WWII’s Battle of Dunkirk.

To meet the challenge, director Joe Wright and producer Paul Webster have brought back the editor, composer, art directors, production designer, casting director and set decorator from “Pride.” That picture’s star, Keira Knightley, passed on other offers to reunite with Wright & Co.

Despite a Booker Prize and almost a decade’s worth of continuous acclaim dating back to the publication of 1997’s “Enduring Love,” McEwan, not surprisingly, has not attained Austen-esque status onscreen. Limited Stateside releases of the bigscreen versions of “Enduring Love” in 2004 and “The Cement Garden” in 1993 were admired by many critics but attracted few ticket buyers or awards-season champions.

If any film stands a chance of eventizing McEwan, it figures to be the $30 million-budgeted “Atonement,” slated to be one of Working Title’s highest-profile release of 2007.

Shooting in London and several less populous U.K. locales wrapped in September, but a demanding post-production schedule is not expected to yield a rough cut until April.

“Structurally it’s more complicated, and the editing is more delicate and nerve-wracking,” Wright says.

“The best and most atmospheric of novelists are often the hardest to adapt,” reasons playwright-screenwriter Christopher Hampton (“Dangerous Liaisons”). Having adapted Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad, among others, he should know.

Even a plot summary is a tricky proposition, especially when trying not to reveal too much, but here goes: Briony, a precocious 13-year-old, is staging a play at her family’s country estate when she witnesses — or thinks she witnesses — several life-changing events involving her older sister, Cecilia, and her working-class boyfriend, Robbie Turner. As she experiences World War II as a nurse and then reflects on her life at the end of the 20th century, Briony has to separate impetuous adolescent judgment from reality and come to terms with the complicated effects of her actions.

Knightley, Oscar-nominated for her turn as Elizabeth Bennet in “Pride,” plays Cecilia. Also returning is Brenda Blethyn, who was Elizabeth’s dizzy mum in “Pride.” Emerging leading man James McAvoy plays Robbie. Vanessa Redgrave plays the elderly Briony.

Another asset is a comfortable working relationship with Working Title, which also backed “Pride.” Company heads Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner “don’t panic and don’t get nervous,” Wright says. “They’ve made me more confident on this film than I was with the last one.”

McEwan, according to Hampton, was “very constructively involved” in reviewing drafts of the script and has remained a participant from a middle distance. Hampton credits the novelist with helping the script manage to convey characters’ inner thoughts without the “convenient crutch” of a voiceover, a device adopted early on but since scrapped. And at one point during development, Wright made the important move to cast three actresses as Briony, who is seen at 13 and 18, ages difficult for a single performer to capture.

One of the most vivid logistical challenges in the adaptation was how to condense a lengthy sequence leading up to and including the Battle of Dunkirk. With the English seaside town of Redcar standing in for coastal France, 1,000 local extras were used, and elaborate sets were built. The resulting section of the film features a continuous 5½-minute shot re-creating the actual battle.

Amid such logistical challenges, the filmmakers kept returning to the book’s firm foundation. “As we tried different approaches, the one that really worked best was a return to the structure of the book,” Hampton says.

“A novel and a film are two different things,” Wright says. “And it is important to me, when I’m adapting an author’s work, to make a film of the experience I had while reading their novel.'”

For Hampton, that experience prompted him to immediately contact McEwan about filmic possibilities. “He’s a writer at the top of his game,” the scribe says. “And what I respond to is that the book is so unexpected. You start it and you think you have one kind of book, and then it morphs into something completely different, and it keeps growing in power all the way through. Our real concern has just been staying true to that.”

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