2. Pride and Prejudice (2005)
Joe Wright’s debut feature, Pride and Prejudice, remains one of his best works to date and is arguably one of the best Jane Austen film adaptations of all time. Beautiful, romantic, and sweeping, it’s the kind of movie that will make you a believer in true love. Aided by a strong script and powerhouse cast, Pride and Prejudice is close to perfect.
While Wright has adapted several novels at this point, his instincts have never been more spot on than with Pride and Prejudice. It is by no means a strict retelling of the novel like the beloved 1995 BBC miniseries starring Colin Firth – it takes a lot of liberties with the time period, makes several alterations to the narrative structure and cuts out a few characters – but it maintains its spirit. It is the closest audiences will get to understanding how it feels to read Jane Austen’s words.
The romance in Pride and Prejudice is stunning and gives us one of the best failed proposal scenes in the history of cinema. Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfayen’s chemistry is almost unbearable, and they sweep us off our feet effortlessly. Donald Sutherland is hilarious and heartfelt as Mr. Bennett, and Rosamund Pike’s understated Jane is a grounding presence.
The ballroom scene in which Wright employs his favorite kind of shot – the long take – is of note as well, as it isn’t as distracting as some of his other camera choices in the previous movies on this list. Here, Wright has his fun while allowing his actors to shine and the gorgeous production design from Sarah Greenwood to take center stage.
Wright took risks with Pride and Prejudice and they paid off. It is apparent why this film put the filmmaker on the map and why it continues to be beloved by Austen fans nearly 20 years later.
1. Atonement (2007)
Atonement is Joe Wright’s masterpiece. It is also his most ambitious work to date; an epic tragedy spanning decades, exploring themes of grief, war, love, truth, and the very nature of storytelling itself.
Adapted from the novel of the same name by Ian McEwan, Atonement tells the story of Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), a thirteen-year-old aspiring novelist who, on the eve of WWII, tells a lie that changes her life and the life of her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightly) forever.
Atonement is a massive undertaking, a truly epic tale of love and loss, and Wright balances all of the moving parts in a manner he hasn’t been able to with some of his other work. The film takes place over the course of a lifetime and every part of the story is expertly paced, the scenes sharply edited. It’s a film that takes its time, but also isn’t afraid to indulge. All of Wright’s hallmarks are present, from his love of long tracking shots to his visual flair. And it all works in Atonement. The narrative is so operatic that Wright’s larger-than-life style only emphasises its qualities.
While the film is certainly grand, the story is never sacrificed. The characters feel vibrant and well developed and deeply flawed. Keira Knightley turns in one of the best performances of her career and James McAvoy is utterly heartbreaking. The first part of the film relies on the talent of pre-teen Saoirse Ronan and she completely knocks it out of the park.
Atonement is a deeply felt, romantic tragedy, the likes of which we might never see again. It’s the perfect marriage of story, performance, and production design, held together by Wright’s ambition. It’s an effecting film that never quite lets you go, the ending a gut punch even though you know it’s coming.
Recommended for you: 100 Unmissable BBC Films
Joe Wright is an inconsistent filmmaker who has the capacity to make both Oscar-winning movies and box office duds. His particular visual style isn’t for everyone and he often loses himself in all of his flare. But, every once in a while, Wright manages to craft something truly spectacular. His films are both brilliant and maddening, but he gets it right enough times to make us excited for whatever he tries next.