Irish cinematographer Seamus McGarvey makes wartime epic shine

In Atonement,13-year-old Briony Tallis changes the lives of her sister and her sister's lover when she accuses him of a crime he didn't commit.

Ian McEwan’s bestselling novel makes a masterly, engaging film. It moves from pre-war childhood bliss to a war-torn and bloody Dunkirk in 1914 and post-war London, with Keira Knightley and James McAvoy starring as lovers whose relationship is shattered by lies, jealousy and the onset of war.

After the phenomenal success of Pride & Prejudice, Joe Wright confirms his status as one of Britain's most exciting young directors, drawing magnificent performances from an all-star cast including Harriet Walter, Brenda Blethyn and Vanessa Redgrave.

His leading lady for the second time, Knightley proves herself an actress capable of emotional depth as well as looking good in a frock, with her tragic character Cecilia giving in to love just as it is taken from her.

McAvoy gives a career-best performance as Cecilia's lover Robbie. As he changes from an idealistic young lover to a man torn apart by injustice and war he almost physically transforms. The pair's romance is passionate and poignant - as quickly as they find love they are parted, with tragic consequences.

Most remarkable is the trio of performances Wright coaxes from the three actresses who play Briony. 

Saoirse Ronan conveys the mixed emotions and frustrations of youth as the thirteen-year-old, and as the 18-year-old Cecilia. Romola Garai displays a dawning of understanding and consequent guilt with haunting skill. And grand dame of the screen Vanessa Redgrave plays Briony in later life, proving peerless in both beauty and character as she brings the epic tale to an end.

The cinematography of Seamus McGarvey, a Co Armagh native, is remarkable. Each scene is beautifully shot and wonderfully lit, from the idyllic sun-drenched English countryside of summertime, through a smoky manor house library, to war-torn France.

The continuous ten-minute scene in which we follow Robbie striding through the starving, defeated men on Dunkirk beach is a visual highlight. With a reported 1000 extras, the sequence conveys the confusion and bewilderment of war beautifully and emotively. 

Drunken men stagger aimlessly, jeeps burn, smoke drifts across a pink sky, the bandstand teems with an impromptu choir as they shout and scream hymns. One soldier moves down a line of horses, blowing each animal’s brains out one by one.

Such was the impact of the cinematography that when McGarvey's name rolled up on the credits, the audience at the Odeon in London's Leicester Square broke into spontaneous applause. McGarvey recieved an Oscar nomination for his efforts, but was beaten to the golden statuette by Robert Elswit for his camera work on There Will Be Blood

A slick, powerful and masterly epic, Atonement is a fine, beautifully-shot adaptation with performances that will stay with you long after the credits have rolled.