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Birdsong - First episode review

Birdsong

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

THE BBC’S big budget adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong is an ambitious undertaking that, on the evidence of this first episode, looks set to become a classic.

Adapted by Abi Morgan, screenwriter of both Shame and The Iron Lady, it’s both a love story and an anti-war message that unfolds from the perspective of Eddie Redmayne’s Stephen Wraysford.

Split between the trenches of the First World War, where Wraysford now finds himself, and the French countryside of 1910, the story finds Wraysford reflecting on the passionate romance he shared with Isabelle Azaire (Clémence Poésy), the wife of a French factory owner), while trying to remain alive amid the mud, bombs and bullets of combat.

In doing so, Philip Martin’s direction offers stark contrasts in both look and performance.

The trench based sequences are almost drained of colour, much like Redmayne’s portrayal is deliberately drained of life. Redmayne’s introverted, thoughtful Wraysford is almost like a ghost walking among the living dead. Certainly, his men don’t really understand him, save for tunnel king Jack Firebrace (an excellent Joseph Mawle), whose strange connection to him will prove pivotal come the episode’s final moments.

But back in 1910, Wraysford is an altogether fuller blooded individual… an Englishman alone in France who has become smitten by the appeal and vulnerability of Isabelle.

She responds in kind, the chemistry between them undeniable from the moment their eyes lock. The expression of their passion becomes understandably erotic. This is love as young and exciting as it is forbidden.

If Martin handles these juxtapositions well to create a visual splendour to proceedings, he could also be accused of putting the art ahead of the emotional content.

For much of the episode, there was a distance to the characters, whether in love or war. Some of the build-up to the romance felt deliberately drawn out… a scene on a boat in which Isabelle and Wraysford took an age to make eye contact after her foot brushes his leg felt a little forced.

But then Martin seems to enjoy letting his camera linger without really calling upon his performers to do too much within the moment.

Nevertheless, the story is such that we want to find out more. Redmayne has an enigmatic quality about him that is compelling. We want to know what makes him tick, what took him to war, what happened to this relationship.

We yearn, like he does, for a return to the safety and beauty of 1910 when stuck in the trenches, fearful of what horror we may be forced to witness next.

And therein lies the real strength in Martin’s direction. The terror and wastefulness of war, and the First World War in particular, abounds. There is a desperation and a futility about the trench sequences that permeates every scene.

Martin refrains from showing too much of the blood-letting at this stage, save for one harrowing sequence in which a young boy has his chest blown apart and must be eased into death by Wraysford. But its effective in letting us know what grisly fate potentially lies ahead of these young men.

And, as such, it serves as a potent anti-war message, which was surely one of Faulks’ main intentions.

The latter part of the first episode was powerful and moving in the extreme… and hints at the depth of emotion that looks likely to follow.

Wraysford’s injury in the tunnels below the trenches and apparent death were shocking, yet masterfully achieved (particularly if you hadn’t read the book). His rescue and ‘resurrection’ of sorts by Firebrace a relief.

Yet the scenes in question were skilfully mixed with images of the affair between Wrayford and Isabelle coming to its head, as her husband found out and they were forced to flee.

Such scenes had an immediacy about them that had perhaps been lacking early on… although we cared sufficiently by this stage to experience both the euphoria of their forbidden love and the terror of what was occurring at war (often in a split second).

Hence, Birdsong may be an acquired taste for those more used to dramas that wear their emotions on their sleeve but a no less impressive one for that. And on the evidence of next week’s preview footage, the best is yet to come.

Read our verdict on the final episode