Nearly all of the members of the production team that director Joe Wright assembled for Atonement had also worked with him on Pride & Prejudice, from production designer Sarah Greenwood to composer Dario Marianelli, along with star Keira Knightley. Director of photography Seamus McGarvey, who has received his first Oscar nomination for his striking cinematography on the film, was the exception. For the Irish-born DP, Atonement—the recipient of a total of seven Academy nods including best picture –was his first collaboration with Wright.
But far from finding himself odd man out, McGarvey, during an intensive month-long prep with the director and other crew keys, quickly became part of what Wright views as his repertory company of creatives. “The planning period with Joe was crucial,” notes the DP. “By thinking out how we would do the movie step by step, it also prepared us to take some risks once shooting began.”
The biggest risk was the last-minute decision to do a single five-and-a-half minute take that encompasses the desperate assembly and subsequent evacuation of English and allied troops from Dunkirk at the start of World War II. It has become known as the shot of the year.
“Initially it was going to be several scenes shot over three days,” McGarvey recalls. “But we realized we couldn’t achieve what we wanted because of the constraints of tide and sun positions so Joe had the idea of trying to achieve it all in one shot.” McGarvey calls it “a real collaboration of all departments” and particularly credits his Steadicam operator Peter Robertson for his handheld work throughout the complex sequence, for which the third time was the charm.
Instead of standing on its own as merely a bravura piece of cinematography, the scene provides a dramatic hinge for the film. Atonement spans three time periods, beginning in 1935 when the English upper classes are enjoying what would turn out to be the end of their insouciant lifestyle.
McGarvey used one of the oldest tools in the DP’s kit to visually enhance the overheated, sensual atmosphere at the film’s start by stretching a No. 10 denier Christian Dior black stocking over the back of the camera’s lens. “We decided we would go for it as a perfect way to diffuse the light and pull the audience into the period,” notes the cinematographer, whose many other credits include The Hours and World Trade Center.
Since Atonement, McGarvey has been director Anthony Minghella’s DP on The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, based on a popular series of mysteries set in Botswana. And for something completely different, he’s back on the team with director Wright on Soloist, a movie about a schizophrenic street musician now shooting on skid row in downtown LA and starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx.
– Jack Egan
Oscar, Best Achievement in Cinematography, Atonement
ASC, Outstanding Achievement in a Theatrical Release, Atonement
BAFTA Film Award, Best Cinematography, Atonement
Written by Jack Egan