When McAvoy arrives for this interview in a Toronto hotel bar a few days after a film festival screening of Atonement, he chooses a seat beneath a large plate-glass window, where the even fall of midday light—painter’s light—allows a close study of his aquamarine eyes, as well as his lumpy nose and Glaswegian pallor. (The plum circles beneath his eyes are further darkened today by the effects of a chest cold.) There is a quality of the gray north about McAvoy, a hint of inner life touched by secret emotion, which is just enough to save him from being the next Hugh Grant. “There is,” says Wright, “something inherently working class about him.”
Stephen Fry, who directed McAvoy in the 2003 film Bright Young Things, puts a finer point on it. “For all his youthfulness, James has a kind of dirty threat to him,” Fry writes via e-mail. “You get the feeling that behind the puckish and twinkly blue eyes, there is a potentially deadly street fighter. James is not lightweight. Even though he is slight of build and, at first glance, almost pretty, there is something dark in there.”
Atonement makes much of the actor’s mixed qualities. The film was shot in the summer of 2006 on location in Shropshire, England, during just the kind of exceptional heat wave McEwan describes in the novel, a time when the normally temperate countryside lies listless and parched. It quickly becomes apparent that the sun that burns too brightly is a metaphor, as the heat soon boils over into a hot-blooded embrace between McAvoy and Knightley. She plays the Beaton-esque beauty Cecilia Tallis, home for the summer at her well-to-do family’s country estate, where Robbie’s mother (Brenda Blethyn) is the housekeeper. Robbie exists somewhere in between the two worlds. Thanks to the enlightened beneficence of Mr. Tallis, he attended Cambridge with Cecilia, distinguishing himself with a “first” in his final exams and adopting a plummy accent to assimilate with his grander peers. But that doesn’t entirely protect him from the casual snobbery he suffers at the hands of Cecilia, her mother and especially her fanciful younger sister, Briony, an aspiring writer with a fervid imagination.
“He very much occupies a no-man’s-land,” explains McAvoy. “Society doesn’t have a place for him. It doesn’t exist. It will in 10 years, but not yet.”
Robbie and Cecilia, who have known each other since childhood, initially fail to understand that the tension between them is erotic, and the opening scenes crackle with intrigues of sex and suspicion. McAvoy notes that the film’s mood—taut, portentous, slightly mannered—is self-consciously antique, inspired by the acting style of prewar British cinema. “Every line is clearly announced and enunciated,” he explains. “There’s nothing that’s a throwaway. Everyone is like, bang, bang, bang. The speed at which we speak is something that I love doing. It’s quite like watching The West Wing or something.”