When Judge Gordon Sullivan went to France, all he got was a T-shirt.
"Sebastian Faulks' epic love story, set against the backdrop of the First World War."
It seems that these days if a novel is a bestseller, it's inevitable that a motion-picture adaptation is pretty much guaranteed. However, sometimes that presents problems. Like, for instance, when the novel in question is a 500-page multi-generational romance that spends most of its time focusing on World War I. Some of the story's challenges have been addressed by this two-part BBC adaptation. However, despite heroic efforts in front of and behind the camera, Birdsong ends up being a curious failure rather than the glowing triumph fans of the novel would want.
Facts of the Case
Birdsong follows young Englishman Stephen Wraysford (Eddie Redmayne, My Week with Marilyn) as he travels to Amiens, France, in 1910. He falls in love with the wife of his hosts (Clémence Poésy, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), and the pair begin an illicit affair. It ends badly. Later, Stephen finds himself on the front during WWI. Birdsong takes us between these points in Stephen's life, weaving a tale of love and loss.
Birdsong makes some very intelligent choices about adapting the novel into the film:
• Condensing the story. The novel is long, but at a little less than three hours, Birdsong necessarily picks and chooses which parts of the novel to adapt. The big part that is excised for this miniseries is the multi-generational storyline. The novel includes portions where Stephen's granddaughter investigates her ancestor's past (and we learn a bit about her life as well). Many adaptations would keep this frame narrative, but it's been done so many times that I was happy to see it taken out for this adaptation.
• Getting good actors. Eddie Redmayne has an aristocratic air about him, and he makes Stephen sympathetic despite the gulf of time that separates his character and the viewer. Clémence Poésy is equally up to the task of supporting her side of the romance, and the fact that she's actually French helps things out. When the material switches to the trenches and their aftermath, Redmayne is supported by strong performances from fellow actors Richard Madden and Joseph Mawle.
• The production values. The BBC have the budget to give us a beautiful portrayal of Northern France and the trenches of WWI. It's great to see a different take on trench warfare (dry instead of mud-filled), and it contrasts nicely with the near-contemporary Downton Abbey view of the war. Fans of pretty costumes and period detail will enjoy these few hours of drama.
• This DVD. Despite putting almost three hours of the miniseries plus three featurettes on to a single disc, Birdsong's 1.78:1 transfer is solid. Detail is appropriate for a standard-def feature. Colors are intentionally washed-out, which the transfer reflects, and black levels are deep and consistent. The 5.1 surround track is similarly impressive. Dialogue is clean and clear in the center, with excellent use of the surrounds during the trench scenes. The disc also includes three featurettes. The first two focus on the two halves of the story (the love and war stories) with the actors discussing their characters and motivation. The third featurette focuses on the show's production, including how some of the historical details emerged.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I referred to the film as a curious failure, which might be a bit harsh. It's only a failure in the way in which it makes a so-so film out of a book beloved by millions. Here are a few of the film's problems:
• The story. No, there's nothing wrong with the story itself. Rather, the problem lies in the way that this film jumps between the two stories it gives us. Though the novel mixes up time by giving us Stephen's granddaughter's story in the 1970s, the historical parts happen in chronological order so that we see the love affair and then the trenches. This series instead opts to switch us back and forth between these two time periods throughout the whole feature. I assume it's to create some sense of suspense, but all it did for me was muddle things. The love affair seems shallow compared to the trench material, and the trench material would be more impacting if it had all come after Stephen's difficulties with the affair. Mixing the two up just doesn't work.
• The characters. Some of the characters are great, and perhaps this criticism is aimed more at the plot than the characters themselves. The big problem is that Stephen and Isabelle fall in love very quickly, almost unbelievably so. If we're to believe that this is an affair they both embarked on knowing the huge stakes, it would be nice to have more than a handful of scenes with little dialogue between them before they're passionately in love. I'm probably just supposed to accept their love as a convention of the genre, but considering the attention to detail shown elsewhere, this lapse in storytelling seems inappropriate.
• The result. Largely because of these two difficulties, Birdsong ends up feeling much more slight than an epic story of love and war set in the nineteen-teens should be. It's not that the series is bad per se, but rather that it had the opportunity to be epic and instead it's just another WWI-era drama. If the source weren't a bestselling novel, and if a show like Downton Abbey hadn't just dramatized the same period, Birdsong would get a bit of a pass.
It's always difficult to recommend a film to fans of the novel, especially when the film makes some substantive changes as this adaptation does. However, I can urge fans of period drama to check this one out for the excellent attention to period detail and sumptuous costuming. For most, though, the disc is probably only worth a rental.
It can sing all its wants, but Birdsong is guilty of not living up to its potential.
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