James McAvoy did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite being nominated for a Golden Globe and a Bafta, for portraying Robbie Turner in Atonement.
James McAvoy plays the character quite fitting for a romance novel of apparently almost any quality. That of course being the poor son of a housekeeper who works for the rich family the Tallises at whose estate the first act of the film takes place in. McAvoy kinda goes about playing this up in his interactions with the youngest Tallis, Briony (Saoirse Ronan). McAvoy attempts to project the charm of the easy going lad who does not hold perhaps the pretensions of the wealthier people. I can't say McAvoy wholly succeeds in this regard having a skeevy quality in Robbie, that perhaps could have been intentional, but I don't think quite works with the films intentions. If it only came across this way in the scenes from Briony's perspective I think that could have perhaps worked quite well in terms of creating her delusion, but the problem is McAvoy plays the part in the same exact way when we are given the "true" perspective during his interactions with Briony's older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley).
McAvoy plays the role the same way as he does not strike up a particularly sizzling chemistry with Knightley in their scenes together, even though that's very much the point in the scenes set in the mansion. The actions take place to show that they have this repressed desire for one another, but it is not effectively shown by either actor. It more of occurs and that's all there is to it. It's suppose to be even more than lust as well, even though the lust is already missing. There is something unusually distant about them in their scenes together and they never bring the power the romance needs to sustain the film frankly. Now it could be the point that remains very proper and very British, but I won't allow that point as the affections can be known even in a reserved way for example the affair in Brief Encounter, which I believe was the sort of film Atonement was attempting to be like. I will be fair I don't think they are terrible together, or anything close to that, but they fail to realize the crux of the film which is quite problematic.
The film eventually moves away from the mansion as Robbie must go into the military due to having been imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. The film proceeds to show Robbie's time in occupied France as he witnesses a few horrors while making his way to Dunkirk for evacuation. The film keeps the dialogue very to the point focusing mainly on McAvoy's reactions to the various things that he encounters before it seems he's going to be rescued and reunited with Cecilia. Well I can't say that there is anything that notable about what McAvoy does in these scenes. He's there, he's not bad, but he does not make any scene come to life by making that human connection within it. He's mainly just there in the scene, and really much of the time he could just as likely be an extra in the scenes since he does not create any emotional journey for Robbie even if it seems there should be one. Like the film McAvoy's work never seems obviously wrong, but fails to make the story truly vivid.
Much of the film Robbie is perhaps used to much as the sort of image of character in a British prestige picture, but not a real character. The most emotionally volatile moments we get from the character are when he directly must speak about his wrongful imprisonment. In these scenes McAvoy breaks down as one would expect Robbie should and portrays his intense anger and despair of his predicament, but it feels like the Macbethian sound and fury which signifies nothing. There is an oddly lifeless quality to the emotions as again there is an odd distance and disconnect in McAvoy's performance left Robbie's story something I did not care about in the least, which I doubt was the film's intention. When his fate is revealed it should be a devastating moment, but instead feels just like a matter of fact revelation. I don't hate this performance but as a romantic lead there's a distinct lack of charm or warmth you'd imagine from this sort, and as a portrait of a man's suffering it stays oddly cold.