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Battle steeled

Vanessa Redgrave brings a wisdom and gravity to 'Atonement.'

January 03, 2008|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

Vanessa REDGRAVE was 3 years old during the evacuation of Dunkirk, the 1940 rescue operation of British and French troops that is portrayed to gripping effect -- via a panoramic, minutes-long tracking shot -- in the wartime romance "Atonement."

"One of my very first memories was eating my breakfast one summer morning, which actually turned out to be August, when the Blitz started," Redgrave said recently. "The air raid siren went off, the first big, big warning, for real, my nanny calling me in, and then from then on at night we'd go down to the cellar of the house my parents had rented."

Redgrave was recalling this in her hotel suite at the Four Seasons, as the sound of leaf blowers drifted up to the room. She was in Los Angeles to promote "Atonement," bringing an unhurried grace to the grubby hustle of a press junket.

As director Joe Wright's adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel "Atonement" unfolds, Redgrave serves as the movie's denouement and its elegy. She plays Briony Tallis in later life -- the 13-year-old girl with the vivid imagination whose impulsive act in the film's first hour reverberates throughout the lives of those around her -- namely her sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), and her sister's lover, Robbie (James McAvoy).

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, January 08, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction
Vanessa Redgrave: An article about Vanessa Redgrave in Thursday's Calendar section misspelled the English county of Herefordshire as Heredfordshire.

It seems inaccurate to call Redgrave's a walk-on role, given the depth she has to project. Throughout "Atonement," Briony is played primarily by two actresses, Saoirse Ronan as the preternaturally poised young girl, and Romola Garai as the young woman, a shellshocked nurse in a triage hospital.

It is merely Redgrave's job to show up at the very end as the accomplished novelist Briony ends up becoming and to embody one of the themes of the story -- art's ability to resonate beyond the brutality of war.

Somewhere in her fine, studied performance is the alchemy of Redgrave's talent and experience, but also this theme.

For like Briony, Redgrave experienced war at once up close and at a remove -- in Redgrave's case, as the offspring of acting royalty. With her father, Michael Redgrave, serving in the merchant navy, the Redgraves evacuated London, first to a home her parents rented in Essex and later to her elderly cousins' house in Heredfordshire, "which in a much humbler way was somewhat similar to the country house that was the home of the main characters" in "Atonement," Redgrave said.

It was there that she gave some of her first professional performances.

"I got roped in by a boy who was a little bit older than myself, and we'd put on plays, when I was 4 and he was 6 and my brother was 2," she said. "We used to charge what was called a ship park penny, a halfpenny, and rope in as many people in the household and some of the people who were living there who were also evacuated from Oxford, and we'd put these plays on to make money for the merchant navy."

Amid her cousins' books, Redgrave said she discovered an anti-fascist expose called "The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror and the Burning of the Reichstag." It was, she said, "the first book that really seized my attention," with photographs of abuses committed at Dachau. "I knew long before the death camps and the concentration camps were liberated why we were fighting a war," Redgrave said.

REDGRAVE, who turns 71 this month, still looks resplendent, with liquid blue eyes and a measured, at times languid manner of speech.

Last August she concluded a nearly half-year Broadway run of "The Year of Magical Thinking," the one-woman show based on Joan Didion's memoir of the year after the sudden death of Didion's husband, writer John Gregory Dunne.

Redgrave is set to reprise the show in London this spring. Her role in "Atonement" is relatively minuscule, though it is also unusual, even for an actress of her caliber.

Redgrave's acting, of course, has deep roots. Father Michael, mother Lady Redgrave, who performed under the name Rachel Kempson. The Redgrave children -- Vanessa, brother Corin, sister Lynn -- are actors, as are Vanessa's daughters Natasha and Joely Richardson, from Redgrave's marriage to director Tony Richardson.

Storied as her acting career has been, Redgrave's activism over the years has become inextricably linked to her image. For better and for worse, you could say she is a latter-day pioneer in the politicization of a movie career.

With Eleanor Roosevelt's work on the International Declaration of Human Rights as her "golden compass," Redgrave has traveled to war zones and been an ambassador to UNICEF. It was in this capacity that she put on an arts festival in 1999 for ethnic Albanians displaced during the Kosovo war.

There is a through line, back to what Redgrave tells of her wartime childhood:

"In the case of my father and a number of his colleagues -- John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft and others -- they went to the ministries concerned, and urged them to allow the theaters and churches and concert halls to be open at lunchtime to give plays, concerts, so that people could have that enormous, irreplaceable gift of resisting.

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