The male lead role of Robbie Turner, the son of the Tallis family housekeeper with a Cambridge education courtesy of the Tallis family, is played by James McAvoy who according to director Joe 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 emphasised underplaying. So, later in the story, when Robbie explodes, you really feel it.
“As a director, Joe knows how to choreograph his scenes, understands the story he’s telling, respects his crew, and loves actors; he made me a better actor on Atonement.” McAvoy believes 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.” Robbie is a compassionate and decent man. We know he has leadership qualities from the war scenes in France and that he is a person that can fit in with any section of society. Robbie is devoted to his mother and not afraid to show his love for her. His mother may only be a housekeeper but he is not embarrassed by his background.
Robbie is obviously changed by prison but he does not lose his best qualities and that is shown when he is in France. One part of the film to think about is when WWII sends Robbie and his British Expeditionary Force (BEF) unit through France, the full scale – human and spatial – of the army’s retreat from and at Dunkirk is captured in a single shot worked out by Wright and McGarvey with steadicam operator Peter Robertson.
Wright says, “The sequence was originally scripted as a montage. But that would have required 30-40 set-ups in a single day, with consistent light. So we went a different route.”
McGarvey adds, “We wanted something that would evolve within the scene itself, and was appropriate for the context. The conventional way to shoot what Robbie is seeing would be to go for a wide shot with a longer lens. With this shot, you are with Robbie, so you share his point of view and also see his face, his reaction to it all.”
The sequence was filmed on location at the seaside town of Redcar, with its existing beach and Corus Steelworks industrial landscape; 1,000 locals were employed to portray wounded or dying U.K. soldiers stranded on the beach at Dunkirk while awaiting safe passage home in 1940.
Greenwood notes, “Joe wanted the scale to be fully conveyed. To me, this shot says everything about Dunkirk – and about Robbie’s journey.”
Ian McEwan reveals, “My father was in or attached to the British army for 50 years. He was on the beach at Dunkirk, severely wounded and then evacuated. When he talked about it, you could see the darkness of the memory, yet also the sense that it was when he felt most fully alive.”
McAvoy reflects, “We talked to one veteran who couldn’t tell us a lot. He said, ‘When you’re doing it, boys, just think about how bad it really was.’ It was hard for him to even say that to us.”
All departments worked together to marshal for the sequence – among many other elements – a bandstand, French and British army weapons both vintage and re-created, a working ferris wheel, bombed-out buildings, a huge beached Thames barge, a choir in performance, and show horses.
In the five-and-one-half minute uninterrupted shot, the camera follows James McAvoy, Daniel Mays, and Nonso Anozie – as Robbie and the two other surviving British soldiers from his decimated unit – as they tenaciously search for any quieter space to try to decompress in.
Webster says, “James’ powers of concentration and transformation impressed me all through the shoot. When it came time to shoot this sequence, he was moving through it all and reacting – which, in a way, is the hardest kind of acting. Robbie witnesses a lot, and James conveys his inner state brilliantly.”