I figured I could perhaps have done a review of the films of the decade, but I’m already doing one list of favourites why do another? What was intriguing me was the idea of recapping my favourite performances of the year in the male and female categories. So, forget the preamble I’m recapping my favourite males and females of the last decade. Fifteen for each: note this is my list and my list alone. You probably won’t agree, but take the journey. I should warn you – they’re spoiler filled, so don’t continue if you still wish to experience the first time thrill. So without further ado, the first on my list…
#15 James McAvoy in Atonement (2007)
I am ridiculously fond of Atonement (proof); the word fond actually doesn’t even begin to explain it. It’s the type of movie that works so well put together as it does individually and I never can decide on a favourite performance from it. Of course Robbie Turner is the only significant male of the lot so he has it easier than the others in the film. Robbie Turner is the son of a housekeeper – Grace Turner. She’s in charge of the Tallis household, Robbie is actually going to medical school because of the kindness of the Tallis, though he’s still a second class citizen. Briony introduces us to Robbie. She has just completed her play and invites him to come see it. “I don’t think that’d be appro-…” – but he doesn’t finish his sentence, though we can guess what it entails. We watch as Robbie tends to the gardener as Cecilia and Briony lie indolently on the grass. “Why don’t you talk to Robbie anymore?” Briony asks. Cee responds – “I do. We just move in different circles is all.”
That line of Keira’s seems like a throwaway one, but it lies at the root of Atonement in more ways than one. McAvoy and Knightley have an overpowering chemistry together and they shine in each other’s presence. The breaking of the vase is one of these moments. McAvoy sells his emotions here, though his words are few. Despite the bravado of his teasing his embarrassment is palpable as he turns away from Cecilia – ever the gentleman, almost. His stuttered attempt at an apology is charming, though lost on Cecilia. It’s that moment (in addition to the heat) which leads to that licentious letter. It’s one of the more difficult scenes, though we don’t realise. We have to believe that Robbie is still the charming, innocuous young boy and still believe that he would write this letter, even if as a jest. We see him walk with the envelope as he delivers it to the wrong messenger. I love the moment where he realises the mistake and he screams…Briony. If only she’d stopped…
The next few scenes occur in a flurry, an attempted apology, a confession and then the consummation of a long realised affection, but I won’t go there. Again. The last shot of a peaceful Robbie is him coming back with the twins, it’s painful to realise that whilst he tries to help the Tallis’ they are putting the final nails in his coffin. The confused look on his face is wrenching. It’s that moment that changes Robbie Turner, and we’ll notice how James plays the Robbie, the solider, just a slight bit different from Robbie before. There’s a something hardened about him, that still sad. His slight reunion with Cecilia is poignant and it’s a strong acting moment for him and Knightley and I love how he (stupidly) tries to run after the bus as Cecilia leaves him. His tears for the schoolgirls is eerie even if we don’t decide to think of them as vestiges of the Briony that was. The scenes Dunkirk are the obvious emotional scenes (it’s a wonder so few major award bodies remembered him). His memories of his mother are heartbreaking.
Before that twist, I always wondered why he was so uninhibted when meeting Briony again (a resplendent Romola Garai), but of course it makes sense when we realise the whole. The final shot of he and Cecilia in thier imaginary ending works because of the narrative and because of the inhibition they share (in an imagind world). Atonement depends on McAvoy's brilliance. I don’t doubt that many will disagree with me on this, but I was very impressed with James McAvoy here, a true performance of the decade.
What were your thoughts on McAvoy's Robbie?