The week that sees the launch of Andrew Marr’s BBC Radio 4 series on discovering the English also witnesses cinematic variations on the theme of the island race as loveable losers, ranging from the triumphantly muddling through to bleakly tragic resignation. At first glance its sheer scope seems to set Atonement above mere parochial self-questioning; but the blunting of sharp perceptions by a romantic soundtrack and the clipped understatement of well-bred restraint evoke the star-crossed lovers to end them all: not Romeo and Juliet but Trevor and Celia. One scene in Atonement, when the unjustly separated young couple, bursting with grief, desire and eagerness, meet in a café, teeters on the brink of caricature as their polite, faltering self-control evokes the station restaurant of Brief Encounter.

Not necessarily a bad thing, but it isolates the heart of the story from the aesthetic values loaded on it by the director Joe Wright. Christopher Hampton’s screenplay based on Ian McEwan’s book immediately transports us into the child’s-eye view of upper-class emotional tensions, an honourable tradition from Henry James to L.P. Hartley. In a pre-war country house a 13-year-old girl bears false witness to a sex crime, resulting in the wrong man being punished – the man her sister loves across class boundaries and continues to love throughout separation and the buckling of the social hierarchy under wartime pressures. The opening sequence is heritage cinema with a vengeance: Merchant-Ivory meets The Go-Between, lush details ladled on for the nostalgic as much as the satiric market.

Here lies the flaw in this beautifully constructed artefact: the director can’t help standing back and admiring his own work, and an air of contrivance results. The already famous panning shot over the Dunkirk beaches is just that: a technical flourish that serves less dramatic purpose than the single-take hunting of Kevin Bacon through the multi-story car park in Death Sentence. After the success of his first feature, Pride and Prejudice, Wright has allowed himself the self-indulgence of the genuinely talented which sometimes – as when the outline of a weary Tommy is silhouetted against a cinema screen showing Quai des Brumes – comes over as wildly self-conscious. And the near-surreal nightmare of Dunkirk itself, shot in a perpetual half-light – dawn? dusk? – in an abandoned funfair and looted bar, soldiers singing a Parry hymn – is an exercise in style too many.

A handful of brilliant performances makes Atonement worth seeing. The impressionable girl who sends the wrong man to hell is shared by Saoirse Ronan, a staggeringly assured and haunting performance of poetry and intelligence, and Romola Garai as her student self, far out-acting the serenely beautiful Keira Knightley, whose sleekly groomed look not even deflowering, the disappearance of her lover or the odd world war can mar. James McAvoy, as the wronged man, emerges as the film’s star, true, heart-rending, an unnervingly real person, a performance of total integrity sloughing off the romantic trappings of a very superior weepie that could have been much more.

Run, Fat Boy, Run might have been something more had its original concept as a New York-set comedy not been changed into a laboured London travelogue. David Schwimmer has brought to his directorial style the nerve-grating blend of winsomeness and the comically nonplussed that made his Ross in TV’s Friends so repellent. Chief beneficiary is Simon Pegg, who, as a loveable loser goaded into winning back the bride he left at the altar five years before, gurns and pratfalls as that favourite British figure, David bumbling to triumph in spite of himself against Goliath.

The true sport is Hank Azariah, who plays a stereotyped American villain (Pegg himself helped change the script to its British edition): rich, successful, muscled – yah boo! The climax, a London marathon, sets the visual seal on the British capital as a provincial American boom town in one of the obscurer states. Pegg himself exudes his usual air of faint self-congratulation playing an unlikeable prat whom nobody in their right mind would prefer to the high- flying Azariah or indeed to anyone.

But we’re not through with London and its loveable losers yet. Before we finally ban views of a few undistinguished skyscrapers poking out of a nondescript architectural jumble as seen from Parliament Hill, there’s Someone Else. Amiable performances, thrusting profiles (the faintly equine Stephen Mangan, the formidable Susan Lynch), wine-bar society and low-key emotional crises. Too shapeless and unplotted; and Mangan’s not-too-ruffled rueful affability hails more from sitcom land.

Not so much shapelessness as unvaried pace and emotional monotony spoil the engaging Small Engine Repair. Losers again, but Irish – though played by English actors (a back-handed compliment?). The Celtic tiger economy has prompted lifestyle comparisons with America rather than Europe, and the downside evokes the same range of stylistic reference: a small logging community, middle-aged men in baseball caps, the all-pervasive sounds of country and western. The dreams of second-rate mechanic Bill of expanding into truck maintenance come over as positively Chekhovian. Doug’s aspirations as a singer are crippled by a lack of self-confidence, intensified by his wife’s infidelities. Steven Mackintosh and Iain Glen are the losers, but not no-hopers, in an intriguing glimpse of traditional Irishness undergoing cultural changes.

Rise of the Footsoldier has moments of near-documentary ruthlessness in its imagined reconstruction of an real gangland killing in the Essex badlands. Far too long, it combines sub-plots and biographical digressions in the cause of background that might have worked better as a television mini-series. Nearly two hours of sickening brutality and foul-mouthed, pea-brained venality will do nothing to further the lovely and historic county’s rehabilitation in popular culture or, alas, the image of the Essex girl.

A reminder that the loveable loser to end them all is back: Withnail and I (Bruce Robinson) has been re-released. A modern classic? A brilliant vignette of a certain time and attitudes? A self-indulgent jeu d’esprit? One thing is certain: Richard E. Grant touched greatness.

Get alerts on L. P. Hartley when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article