The verdict on BBC's upcoming lavish adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s First World War novel, Birdsong
It’s been nearly 20 years since it was first published, but at last Sebastian Faulks’s First World War novel Birdsong - the book voted the 13th best ever read in 2003 - has reached the screen.
There was a dire stage musical adaptation which had a short-lived run in the West End a couple of years ago. Then original plans for a film version shifted in focus over the course of development from the big screen to the small one. But the final result, BBC One’s two-part version, the first episode of which will premiere on Sunday 22 January, and was previewed last night at Bafta, does the book proud.
A cast blessed with devastating good looks, including Burberry model Eddie Redmayne and In Bruges’s Clémence Poésy, sensitively plays out Faulks’s tale of a love affair that straddles the cataclysm of the Great War. Scriptwriter Abi Morgan, who also has two major films opening this month with The Iron Lady and Shame, has spliced the love story that takes place largely before the war, in 1910, with episodes from the conflict itself. These sharp shifts from the lyrical and languid scenes of hero Stephen Wraysford (Redmayne) and his French love Isabelle Assaire’s (Poésy) romance, to the mud and blood of the trenches where Stephen later finds himself, movingly juxtapose the optimism of passion with the despair of war. “This book is about the most extreme things you can experience in life,” comments director Philip Martin. “Either in love or war, everything is 10 out of 10.”
Martin’s treatment of the war itself has at times an elegiac feel, presenting tableaux of blasted terrain that have their own strange beauty. If there is a criticism - on the basis of the first episode alone - it is that this Birdsong is too lovely to look at, removing from us the sense of an intimate encounter with the horror of war that Faulks’s book provides, to a more contemplative, distant viewpoint. But this is, on the whole, a loyal, finely tuned adaptation of Faulks’s passionate lament to the terrible human waste of the worst conflict we have ever known.