By Maryann O’Connor
You may have heard that a production of the popular novel Birdsong has long been in the pipeline. Well, it is finally here and we were recently invited to BAFTA to see a preview of the first part. Birdsong is set in the years just before and during WW1 and based on the novel by the same name by Sebastian Faulks, adapted by award-winning Abi Morgan (The Hour, The Iron Lady, Shame).
Eddie Redmayne, who you may have seen recently in My Week with Marilyn, is the central focus of this story as Stephen Wraysford. We first meet him in the few years before WW1 as he comes to stay with The Azaire family in Amiens, ostensibly for some reason of business but that is set aside when he takes a fancy to Rene Azaire’s (Laurent Lafitte) missus, Isabelle (Clémence Poésy). We see him wrestle with his conscience for a little while but he finds Madame far too fascinating to resist. Cut to a few years later and he’s an officer in the trenches of World War One, not far from the scene of his earlier love affair, working with the tunnellers in their attempt to blow old Fritz/The Bosh to smithereens from underneath. He now seems quite bitter and detached from life.
As the drama progresses, it keeps cuts backwards and forwards between life before the war and the trenches: a very sharp contrast considering the luxury and illicit between the sheets action of Wraysford’s time in Amiens. I won’t dwell on them but the aforementioned ‘between the sheets’ action made me snort like an embarrassed teenager trapped into watching a surprise film sex scene with their parents on Christmas Day. They had lots of forced urgency but did not convey much feeling. Aside from that, Eddie Redmayne and Clémence Poésy portray a perfectly sweet but bland portrait of two people thrown together through circumstance.
Laurent Lafitte makes a charming brute as Rene Azaire, very Heathcliff in his ill-disguised violent nature, who is seemingly only interested in breaking the spirit both of his wife and the factory workers. Joseph Mawle (as tunneller Jack Firebrace) lifts the war scenes from being quite mundane. His story becomes inextricably linked with that of Stephen Wraysford’s as the narrative progresses.
During the Q & A, Abi Morgan briefly reflected on the difficulty of converting the book to the screen: “I think most good work is about what you leave out as much as what you put in so for me it was just trying to find the things that stayed with me…”
One or two things which stayed with me were the scenes involving the tunnellers: if you are interested in seeing another side to WWI, the dangerous work of the tunnellers or ‘sewer rats’ may hold your attention. Joseph Mawle said “weirdly there was only one Victoria Cross given to a tunneller, a man called William Hackett, who I understand Sebastian Faulks based my character Jack on…Philip (Director Philip Martin) and I talked a lot about the tunnellers being a kind of special forces but at the same time they were civilian men doing a civilian job unlike the infantry…these men had already trained as miners whether they’d been working in the mines up in the north or they’d been working, as Jack’s character had, on the Central line… building the modern transport system”.
Birdsong, overall, was very pretty: it had well-constructed sets, costumes and a comely cast but at times was sadly lacking in substance. There is one more part of this war/love story to be shown (two parts of 90 minutes each) and I will be tuning in to watch the second part, remaining hopeful that everything will come together in the end.
Birdsong (Part 1) BBC1, 22 January at 9pm.