Deathwatch (15)

Review by Toby Gregory



SET on the Western Front in 1915, Deathwatch is the first film I've seen that vividly portrays the hellish conditions that were experienced by both the Allied and German troops in the shattered landscape of Northern Europe during the First World War.

It follows the journey of one young man, Jamie Bell’s Charlie Shakespeare, and his struggle to cope, unable to face the horror of war. Forced over the top at gun point, Shakespeare is hurled into the chaos of battle reluctantly but, as he witnesses the carnage surrounding him, poison gas drifts over the nightmare, knocking him out.

He awakes at dawn, finding himself completely lost in enemy territory with a handful of comrades from Y company. Their only shelter is an abandoned trench, where they rest and seek refuge, but little do they know that their nightmare has only just begun. Someone, or something, is there with them.

A shrewdly put together film, Deathwatch director, Michael Bassett, was keen to make it ‘feel authentic’.

"I wanted to bring out a gut level reaction to how the place must have felt," he says - and that he does, putting you in the picture and making you feel like you could be there, reacting to the challenges they face.

At certain points, the ensuing wartime horror film reminded me of old slasher movies, with the point-of-view shots enabling viewers to see the terror through the victim's eyes - but it also resembles the classic haunted house flicks of old.

Leading the cast, Bell, of Billy Elliot fame, has swapped his dancing shoes for a Lee Enfield rifle and turns in a credible performance as the scared teenager. It’s his first film since Billy Elliot and the young star is proud of the results.

"I wanted to pick the right film," he maintains. "One that would see me transcend from a child actor into adult. What better way than being in a war film? It's a privilege to be working with these actors; they are a great bunch of lads."

Bassett is equally as enthusiastic about his performers, saying: "It's an amazing cast. As a first time filmmaker, I'm incredibly privileged to be working with these guys. Matthew Rhys, Kris Marshall, Andy Serkis, Hugh O'Conor, Hugo Speer - all these guys are accomplished screen actors and they are all so gifted."

"But," concludes Bassett. "This film is entertainment first and foremost. All the effort we put into this film is to make an incredibly entertaining movie."

I would recommend you see it while it’s showing at the cinema, not only to support a British film with a first-time director, but simply because it's made for the cinema and its effects might be lost on a little screen.

Not everything works, and the film is nastier than it is scary, but it effectively realises the conditions of ‘living’ in the trenches and serves as a timely reminder of the horror of war.