Review: Birdsong, Part 2
The BBC One adaptation of Sebastian Faulks's novel was less than impressive.
At the end of the first part of Birdsong, Stephen Wraysford (Eddie Redmayne) was coming to life in the arms of sapper Jack Firebrace (Joseph Mawle) after being shot in a tunnel below the Western Front. In the story of his time in France six years earlier – which ran parallel to the war story – he was embarking on a new life with Isabelle (Clémence Poésy), with whom he had stolen away from her tyrannical French factory owner husband.
Part two (BBC One, Sunday) continued to intercut Wraysford’s trench life with his Proustian memories of life with Isabelle. There were tragic portents in the romantic bits – Isabelle pricking her finger on a rose thorn – and, just in case we were in any doubt, stirring violins or mournful piano reminded us we were watching A Tragic Tale.
Few could deny the emotional impact of some scenes. As the men were cut down by German machine guns on the Somme, we saw them the night before writing letters to loved ones. Their padre watched them helplessly, in shock at what was happening to “his boys”. It wasn’t what you could call subtle, but then neither was the Battle of the Somme.
However, as with the previous Sunday’s episode, relentless flashbacks drained the dramatic tension. Not a moment passed which was not so freighted with memory and meaning that, even though the film-makers had three hours to play with over both episodes, it still seemed both too slow and too congested.
For example, the character of Wraysford’s company was supposed to be conveyed solely by some cheeky banter from the Tommies, but we never spent enough time among them to truly get to know them. It was as if the programme assumed you had already read Sebastian Faulks’s novel (on which the adaptation is based) or knew enough Blackadder to fill in the gaps yourself.
The love story and the war story converged when Wraysford was posted near Amiens and he stumbled across Isabelle’s sister Jeanne. She took him to see Isabelle, whom he had not seen since she abandoned him without explanation before the war. Their reunion was designed to tug the heartstrings: the scar on Isabelle’s face looked like the track of a tear; Eddie Redmayne’s large upper lip trembled convincingly. But now the repeated piano motif had become a cliché.
More convincing was the scene later that evening when a raging Wraysford drew a knife on a French prostitute he was about to have sex with. For once there was an edge, a nastiness to him that made you feel his flaws. It also helped that it was one of the few scenes not filmed in slow motion.
Some viewers, I know, will have found the director’s aesthetic meditative and haunting. But to me Birdsong seemed like a series of pretty trailers with an empty hole where the drama should have been.