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War and French ladies
on September 28, 2013
Sebastian Faulks' novel is highly regarded. I've not read it, but I'll take people's word that it's good. Abi Morgan is a talented screenwriter whose work I've enjoyed -- most recently, the series "The Hour" and the film "Shame". So I should've liked "Birdsong". But for whatever reason, the potential in this project just didn't gel into anything particularly great. Perhaps the series needed to be longer: the love story feels rushed; Eddie Redmayne's compatriots in the trenches just seem like quick sketches; and then it's over. Well, it's not over before we're given the moral of story, delivered by a guy tragically dying in the trenches. "It's all we're good for," the guy croakingly soothsays to Redmayne, while the strings weep in the background. "To love and be loved." (Hopefully this scene is not in the novel.)
But before we get to that pearl of wisdom, we must endure a lot of staring into the middle distance, mostly from Redmayne as he reminiscences about his lost love while in the trenches. The director was rather cruel to Redmayne, I should think. The guy is asked to look tragic throughout the whole picture, even in the pre-war scenes. He's asked to break down and sob a few times. Actors hate that, by the way. Worst of all, he's asked to whisper. A lot. Almost his entire dialogue is whispered. If you don't have a decent home theater system with Dolby, you are well advised to turn on the Closed Captioning, unless you enjoy alternating your volume up and down between whispering and bombshells. I think some directors confuse whispered dialogue with Important Dialogue.
The heart of the thing is the love story, but, as I said earlier, the story is too rushed for us to start really rooting for the lovers to come together. There is some nice intensity between them as they steal glances at each other and play some footsie on a rowboat (for once, all the staring works to a purpose), but it's just not enough. The lady is married to an impotent man, conveniently enough, and I think she's supposed to be about 10 or so years older than Redmayne. But Clemence Poesy appears to be the same age as Redmayne, so it's strange when she calls him "my boy", and it's even stranger when the 16-year-old daughter of the husband's first marriage calls Poesy "maman". Poesy seems like a fine actor, but this is a Casting Fail.
As for the rest of it: there's a Gallipoli-like futile charge against the Germans that fails because of incompetent planning by the military brass, but really, haven't we seen all this before? In fact, we've seen it in "Gallipoli", a superior movie directed by Peter Weir. I couldn't connect with the soldiers' mission, and I couldn't connect with them. One of them wears sweaters, sent from his mother back in England, over his army issue. Couldn't tell you anything else about him, though. Perhaps Abi Morgan needed to spend more time on them. Perhaps the producers needed a bigger budget to expand the series.
Or, and here's a thought, maybe the original novel the series is based on isn't all that good to begin with, contrary to received opinion. All that I learned from "Birdsong" is that War, and French Ladies, are Hell. Tell me something I don't know! 2 out of 5.