STUNNING CIMEMATIC LEVEL FILMING --- FOCUS MORE ON SOCIAL ISSUES AND PERSONAL DRAMAS RATHER THAN COMBAT --- (CC on streaming and SDH subtitles are on discs)
BRIEF HISTORICAL CONTEXT --- PLUS MENTION OF DVD/BLU-RAY QUALITY ON DISCS
This 2014 TV mini series was written and produced by Sarah Phelps (also did 2011 Great Expectations with Gillan Anderson). It was inspired by (but not based on) a Lyn McDonald book [[ASIN:014017866X Roses Of No Mans Land]] about volunteer nurses who served on the Western Front during WWI. Though the characters in this show are fictional, a great deal of effort and research was expended to insure a very historical setting. They are set across a spectrum of social classes and backgrounds to, in Phelp's words, illustrate the mindset of the entire country. As such, there is a heavy emphasis on social issues and personal dramas more than the war itself or combat. As these brave women help piece soldiers back together, body and soul, their own lives are somewhat dissected. There are just six episodes and the first half spends time introducing the characters while really going for the heart strings - depicting the terrible effects of war on individual soldiers. Shell shock, gaping wounds, a few medical advances, personal fear, and patriotism are all explored as story lines. Though I loved the whole series, I realize some viewers might get bogged down in the melodrama before the story arcs have a chance to set in. The second half is where the payoffs begin as many characters battle their past and secrets come to light.
THE STORY (no spoilers): It begins with three volunteer nurses in the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VADs) arriving at the port of Boulogne France 1915 as they head for a field hospital near the front. One volunteer is shown in particular as the scene opens with her. Kitty Trevelyan is on the ship rail and tosses a golden wedding ring into the water before disembarking. It seems clear she is running away from something we don't yet understand. She quickly meets up with two other volunteers, the prim Rosalie Berwick and youthful, wide eyed Flora Marshall. The three travel to camp and are introduced to the spartan and militaristic lifestyle they will live. Everyone is just coming to the realization this will not be a short war as previously thought. At the heart of the camp is the Matron of nurses Grace Carter and her adjutant Sister Quayle who was passed over for matron by the hospital commander LT COL Roland Brett. This camp politics will play a significant role as Matron Carter was once the protégé and subordinate of the curmudgeonly but decorated military nurse Sister Quayle. This dynamic is further strained by the arrival of highly skilled and rather modern Sister Joan Livesey who is Matron Carter's friend. She rides into camp on her own motor bike sporting a bob hair-do, male officer's coat, and her own complicated past. Volunteer Trevelyan is hiding her own secrets and has difficulty with a sour attitude as she learns to adjust to her new life. The focus resides more on the three volunteers though quite a number of characters hide some sort of past they may be running from. Though the first half focuses heavily on social issues, the latter half builds on that foundation and digs heavier into the individual lives as their past catches up with them and comes to a head.
OTHER THOUGHTS: I enjoyed this program right from the start, but also waited to see if they would take it somewhere beyond the melodrama. As a former soldier, I was affected by the stories of individual wounded and their plight. I admit I had to choke down a little emotion at times. I mentioned the first few episodes try to go straight for the heart strings and the drama can be heavy. I realize there are some that will feel it's a bit too much, particularly if emotion is not your thing. This was a particularly gruesome war to fight and the social changes it affected on Britain were profound. Direction is realized more specifically in the second half as mentioned. The performances were all outstanding. From the opening scene, it's clear the cinematography will be stunning.
DVD & BLU RAY QUALITY: Of course Amazon streaming doesn't match the discs. So should you decide to buy the discs - The excellent filming of this production allows for stunning presentations. The DVD is top quality for that medium. But the clarity and stunning colors really have a chance to shine on the Blu Ray presentation. The colors in the costumes, the hues of sky and countryside all really pop. It's all just gorgeous! The U.S. release does not include the special features but they are on the U.K. release. If you are thinking of buying the U.K. release, it is region locked for region 2 only.
NOTE ABOUT CONTENT: There is some language and brief male nudity as they deal with realistic hospital and military environments. This was partially edited in the broadcast version on PBS but is unedited on Amazon Streaming.
SOME INTERESTING HISTORICAL CONTEXT: The Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) was established in 1909 with the help of the Red Cross. Full fledged military nurses dressed as nuns and were not allowed to marry. The VADs however, were civilian volunteers from middle and upper class families. At the start of WWI, the Red Cross was reluctant to allow civilians to serve overseas and military officials in particular would not allow them near front lines. They were not necessarily used to hard work given their background and were not used to military discipline. However, this changed after Katherine Furse took the first two VADs to France in 1914 to serve as canteen workers and cooks. They were unexpectedly caught in a battle and pressed into emergency service. Having performed well, the VAD role was increased. Over time, the volunteer worker's skill increased and fully trained nurses became more accepting. During WWI alone, 38,000 volunteers participated and served throughout many theaters of war. Some famous names of VADs you may recognize: Enid Bagnold (author National Velvet), Mary Borden, Agatha Christie, and Amelia Earhart.