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since 1997 | by maryann johanson

James McAvoy and screenwriter Christopher Hampton on ‘Atonement’’s Dunkirk tracking shot

Atonement is an astonishing movie in many ways, one of which is the amazing tracking shot on the beach at Dunkirk, one uncut five-and-a half-minute take as British soldier Robbie Turner takes in the horror and anarchy of the retreat from the Continent of his countrymen. I can’t top Jake Coyle of The Associated Press, who described the scene as “a grim circus of defeat and chaos.”

I was so caught up in the nightmare of the moment that I didn’t realize until it was over that the scene had gone on for so long without a single edit: director Joe Wright’s audacious decision to shoot the terrible confusion — and its impact on Robbie — this way succeeds brilliantly. But it was a matter of necessity forcing inspiration. Screenwriter Christopher Hampton — who adapted Ian McEwan’s novel — and James McAvoy, who plays Robbie, spoke recently about the experience of shooting the Dunkirk sequence.
Christopher Hampton: If you’ve read the book, you’ll know it’s all about these huge columns of refugees traveling north through France being attacked by German fighter planes and straffed, and it’s a ragged conflict between British retreating soldiers and the advancing Germans. We had all those things in the script.

It was a budget problem. They wanted to make the film for $30 million, because they felt all along it was a risky venture and so that was the obvious section to start weeding out.

So we thought we’d make a virtue of this by just having these three soldiers, sort of like the Wizard of Oz or something, in some phantasmagorical way, walking through these landscapes, and then suddenly arriving at this teeming hell. As we got closer to it, Joe [Wright, the director] said, You know, we could take all these various scenes and do them all in one shot. And then, we only have to have the thousand extras for one day.

And so it was. It was pretty nervewracking because we started rehearsing at six o’clock in the morning and then we started shooting about four in the afternoon. We got three takes done, the third of which was at the magic hour. And then we embarked on a fourth take in the middle of which the Steadicam operator fell over. The guy had been walking backwards and carrying this vast thing through the sand for all day. And it turns out the third take was the only one that was workable.

James McAvoy: It was a massive gamble. Joe really went out on a limb. But he had a crew and a cast and who — with his helming and his rustling and corralling and his ability to galvanize people — who made it happen. Filmmaking is a miracle of collaboration, and that one day was a microcosm of that experience. There were 1,800 people involved in it and any one of them could have screwed it up at any one time. [We did] three and a half takes, and two and a half times one of those people or more did screw it up. The fact that we got a take nobody screwed it up is incredible. It’s a testament to [Wright’s] audacity, his genius.

The question for me was, How do I maintain connection with all the technical marks I need to hit — not just physically [but also] in terms of level, acting wise — while still feeling the emotions of that moment. And you start to get overwhelmed with the emotion, you know, because it’s an incredibly moving day — to do [scene like this] so massively, it doesn’t happen a lot. Also, you’ve got pressure riding on it, so it amplifies the emotion. And you start to get a bit overwhelmed. Then you realize that’s you commenting on it, it’s not you living it — it’s not probably the way every soldier felt, and it’s not necessarily the way that that soldier should feel. So you have to detach yourself quite a bit, otherwise you’re the actor going, “Haaah, it’s so sad and scary — scary and horrible…” Which, of course, it is. But that should be the reaction of the person watching it, and, indeed, I let myself feel that when I was watching it two days later, and the rest of the crew as well — we were all a mess together. Not to say actors’ jobs are in any way like solders’ jobs, because they’re not — but there’s a detachment that you have to try and achieve in either of them, otherwise a logistical nightmare of a scene like that would fail because actors wanted to feel it.

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  • JT

    I was bored by it. It was a tedious, pointless shot that was just an obnoxious director showing off, as he himself put it. It actually moved the action away from Robbie’s POV and the camera swirled around for 4 minutes. Technically impressive, but it added nothing to the film. The carnage depicted in Saving Private Ryan and Apocalypse Now for instance, actually said something. Ultimately, the ending undercuts everything – good and bad – about the film. If this wins BP at the Oscars, it will be a bigger travesty than Crash.

  • MBI

    “Ultimately, the ending undercuts everything about the film.”

    Uh, yeah, that’s the point.

  • JT

    Nick Schager put it nicely in his review:

    Pivoting around Wright’s hollow, look-at-me extended tracking shot along the soldier-populated shores of Dunkirk, Robbie’s military service is the film’s most dreary, sterile sequence, though just about everything here has been carefully polished to within an inch of its existence.

  • MaryAnn

    Nick is a great guy — I’m acquainted with him professionally, we chat at screenings, etc — but I could not disagree with him more about this scene. I’m sure that it’s true that it made him feel this way, but I found it so stunning that I still can barely express how deeply it impacted me.

  • MBI

    I’m halfway between the two poles on this. I agree that that scene is extraneous and indulgent.

    But I also think that’s a good thing. I mean, hell, I like Tarantino movies, I can hardly blast Joe Wright for it. Technically impressive, great filmmaking, it really livens up the France segments. The whole middle feels like it’s building up to that — even if the movie isn’t really about war or Dunkirk.

    As the whole movie is a story of metafiction, I think it would be disappointing to not make the film like it is, so that it looks like it’s about a wartime romance costume drama.

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