The Contenders

Release date: Dec. 7 Distributor: Focus Features

Both a ravishing period romancer and sophisticated narrative puzzle, every frame of Joe Wright’s “Atonement” breathes Oscar. Much beloved at festival premieres in Venice and Toronto and during its U.K. run, the WWII-era drama has pleased both audiences and critics. “What a clever, ambitious, compassionate picture,” writes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. “What a success for Joe Wright and for (Keira) Knightley and (James) McAvoy.” Both thesps deliver rich performances full of emotional range and are likely candidates for acting categories, while director Wright and Oscar-winning scribe Christopher Hampton are also strong contenders with their adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel.

While a Blighty-set picture hasn’t taken home the picture Oscar since 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love,” plenty of films have successfully crossed the Pond to nab noms. Producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner have a long history with the Academy, drawing 38 nods and four wins — though no victories for a Brit pict. With strong contenders in craft categories, such as art director Sarah Greenwood, costume designer Jacqueline Durran and composer Dario Marianelli — all previously nommed for Working Title and Wright’s “Pride & Prejudice” — along with Irish lenser Seamus McGarvey, “Atonement” could change those stats.

Comparisons to another sweeping WWII-era tragic romance (and picture winner) are inevitable — “Could it be ‘The English Patient’ for the (new century)?” asks Bradshaw in his review. But the film’s increasingly layered and contemporary spin on old themes also evokes another adaptation, “The Hours,” which received nine noms, but just one win. If the Acad recognizes the film’s innovations as well as its conventional pleasures, “Atonement” could garner major reparations on Oscar night.

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