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Birdsong (2) BBC – Philip Martin: superb adaptation of Faulks’ much-loved book





Birdsong (2) – Philip Martin

Superb. Within the constraints of the 3 hours Martin gave himself, this adaptation had everything including a wonderfully elegiac rhythm that adjusted subtly to the transitions between events in the War and peacetime scenes in Amiens. This structure worked perfectly for me creating a rare sense of engagement in the inner lives of the characters especially Stephen, Isabelle and Jack (Firebrace).

Eddie Redmayne was simply stunning as Stephen: pitch perfect and conveying the quiet unobtrusive subtleties of a love so overwhelming that it was beyond conventional morality, beyond guilt; but also convincing in the edgier demands of the front in a War of unspeakable horror and waste. Without the resources of a major studio budget it was a great achievement to invest the scenes in the trenches and especially underground with Jack and the Sewer rats, with such a keen sense of authenticity both moving and suspenseful.

Casting was excellent with solid performances ably supporting the principals; the excellent Joseph Mawle (Jack), an imperious Matthew Goode as Captain Gray and a likeable Richard Madden as the eventually tragic Captain Weir. For a story the whole dramatic fulcrum of which was the love between Stephen and Isabelle, the casting of Isabelle was critical: and the quirkily beautiful Clémence Poésy was a fascinating mixture of ethereal detachment and earthy passion. We believed in this passionate love even before a word was spoken between them in episode 1 and later when living together after she had left her husband and step-children.

Current hot writer Abi Morgan has two other major productions on show at the moment in Shame and The Iron Lady. For me Birdsong is by far the best of the three. Not a word wasted; not a phrase too much, the rigorously economical writing allowed the characters to breathe and the actors to flesh out their parts without the burden of carrying too much plot development. A beautifully judged screenplay.

Editing and cinematography were unobtrusively effective throughout with one jarring exception and Nicholas Hooper’s quietly insistent score, often relying on a plangent single piano melody line, perfectly underpinned and reinforced the dramatic cadences of the narrative throughout.

An adaptation up there with the best the BBC has done and unless it’s timing of broadcast versus the BAFTA etc season works against it, one that should win shed-loads of awards.

One or two scenes seemed to need a little more time to develop making me wonder whether these might have been filled out satisfyingly had this been two 120 minute episodes or even a 90 minute opener and a 120 minute conclusion.

I have only one cavil about this excellent film: I am absolutely bewildered that Martin ended 3 hours of superb filming so abruptly. There are two elements to this: 1st and so hard to understand; at the very end where Stephen walks towards the house and his daughter runs up to him, Martin cuts literally just a few frames too soon as Francoise does not actually reach him. There are plenty of ways to make this closing shot more satisfying: e.g. Stephen crouching down to Francoise’s level and we close as the two speak is just one – but they should connect. The poignancy and emotional power of the moment that the whole 3 hours before has led us to is chopped with an abruptness that seems almost amateurish.

The second disappointment relates to the whole of the ending. Directors must engage with two emotional frames of reference in any scene: the first and by far the most important, is the rhythm, the natural pulse of the narrative; appearing neither too rushed nor to slow. The second element is the emotional rhythm of the audience: we attune ourselves to the pace the Director gives to his narrative and when the dramatic drive speeds up or slows, great directors lead us through these transitions, these changes of pace. Of course sometimes the dramatic effect sought is a startling, shocking abrupt cut, but generally this process is one of gently smoothing out transitions between scenes. This happens constantly in films but goes unnoticed through the L-cut: watch any film carefully and you will for example hear dialogue from the next scene before the images of the present scene have gone.

With time-shifted narratives these transitions can be confusing and disruptive to our engagement in the narrative – this happens quite a lot for example in the current J.Edgar movie. It is bewildering therefore that having controlled these rhythms and transitions impeccably throughout Birdsong, giving a very distinctive atmosphere and tone to the film, elegiac as I have described it above, Philip Martin should wrap the whole 3 hours up in a 35 second final scene, ending several frames early. Having guided us firmly and confidently through the whole of his film it’s as if Martin has run out of time and makes us sprint the last stretch. To so radically change the pace of the film right at the end seems perverse. Certainly my wife and I both felt surprised and a little cheated: we needed a little time to savour the bitter-sweet conclusion to a dramatic journey that had so totally absorbed us for 3 hours.

A small point perhaps and I hope it doesn’t sound too precious: but it is the only tiny disappointment in a superbly made, beautifully acted, moving and evocatively successful adaptation of a much loved book to the screen.

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