TV Review: Birdsong
BBC One's new two-part TV adaptation of the modern classic set during the First World War
You could argue that the BBC’s adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong (BBC One) has had nearly 20 years of hype. The book came out in 1993; readers adored it. A film version was promised; it never happened. Faulks himself has long since distanced himself from the project. Last night, the Beeb’s lush, languorous two-part treatment finally hoved into view. And in many ways, it was a triumph.
Eddie Redmayne played Stephen Wraysford, the introverted hero who walks the trenches of the worst war that ever happened as if he were already dead, with total absorption. He gave the part both an aloof melancholy and the sense that his insides had been ripped out. He also gave it drop dead beauty.
Indeed, Redmayne is too beautiful, in one way, for this muddy, bloody tale of collapsing tunnels and exploded skulls. But in another way, his beauty helped. Director Philip Martin’s whole vision of the First World War – in which half the scenes of the opener took place – was aestheticised. His tableaux of the battlefield, with their blasted trees, looked like Paul Nash’s paintings. When Wraysford’s near-expired body was rescued at the end of the episode it looked like a scene from the Deposition of Christ. No accident, I’m sure: the British officer, like Jesus, would be brought back from the dead.
At first I felt a bit cheated by all this elegance: it is not what Faulks did in the book, whose key power came from the realism of the trench scenes, not polished prose. But on reflection, what Martin – and Redmayne’s ambisexual cheekbones – gave us instead was a war at one remove, where we could stand back and contemplate the abstract – its tragedy, its alienation, its despair – without getting too mired in the filth. Don’t get me wrong: we did see wounds, but apart from one shell-ravaged ribcage, never the full horror of war – not in this part, at least.
There’s another part to Birdsong: the drippy love story that takes place in 1910 between Wraysford and Isabelle Azaire (an expressive, elastic-faced Clémence Poésy), the wife of a French factory owner. Scriptwriter Abi Morgan, who has also netted two of the best film commissions going (Shame, The Iron Lady), had decided to splice this tale with the war scenes; in the book they’re told chronologically. This was clever because the war scenes sped up the love scenes, and Morgan’s spare script steered clear of schmaltz. Little could mask the fact that what we were seeing was sexual passion misinterpreted as love – Faulks wasn’t interested in investigating what a long-term relationship looked like. But Martin did his best to cover this up with several over-long close-ups of the lovers’ entranced faces.
Its unoriginal love story, however, is irrelevant to the significance of Birdsong. Faulks’s book, along with others such as Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, helped usher in a new era of fiction about the Great War. As the witnesses who preferred never to remember it died off, a new generation felt compelled to reimagine it, to vicariously take part in it. Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse is part of the same trend. And both Birdsong and War Horse have now received screen adaptations that conjure the war at a time when the loss, in 2009, of Harry Patch, the last surviving British veteran, has broken our link with real memory of it.
The BBC, then, have done something important – they have made an elegiac, lyrical film (that is better than Spielberg’s War Horse) with which the next generation can associate the war. It aspires to the sentiments of the war poets. “The poetry is in the pity,” as Wilfred Owen had it. And if there is a hint of mawkishness in this, Faulks must first bear responsibility before we lay it at the feet of Auntie.