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Birdsong – Philip Martin (BAFTA Preview 11.01.12) Superb adaptation.


Isabelle and Stephen - Birdsong



Birdsong – Philip Martin (BAFTA Preview 11.01.12)

Back in the day when the Rolls Royce was the iconic symbol of engineering excellence and ultimate emblem of wealth, a rich customer visited the Rolls Royce factory to check on progress with his personal, hand-finished car and was shown round by the chief engineer. Wanting to sound knowledgeable he asked the engineer “what Brake Horsepower does it have?” The engineer smiled and said “sufficient sir.”

The BBC is the Rolls Royce of period drama: each one uniquely tailored to its narrative source but all having a confident authority in authenticity, production values, casting and usually superb writing – often adapted. Although Birdsong is a joint venture with Working Title Films, lovers of Sebastian Faulks’ novel will be relieved to know all these qualities of excellence can be seen from the very first frame of this Philip Martin directed adaptation in two 90 minute episodes.

Abi Morgan, the hottest screenwriter of the moment (Iron Lady, Shame) has created a spare but elegant script that allows a superb cast under Martin’s direction to achieve a powerful and moving transition from book to film. This preview was only the first episode but with its rhythmic cutting from exquisite shots of pre-war Amiens where Stephen Wraysford meets and falls in love with Isabelle, the wife of his industrialist host; and the horror of the trenches, Faulks’ characters and the historical setting of their story are beautifully established.

Casting is superb: Eddie Redmayne is an impossibly handsome young Stephen Wraysford redolent of Anthony Andrews in Brideshead Revisited. Clémence Poésy’s Isabelle is both ethereal and earthy; remote but passionate; and her affair with Stephen totally credible and absorbing. In the trenches, conscripted ‘sewer-rat’ tunneller Jack Firebrace is played with quiet assurance by Joseph Mawle in scenes where we are struck by the way the social hierachy of peace has simply replicated itself in the military hierarchy of war; with often ironic and absurd results.

The plan is for episode 1 of Birdsong to take over the Sunday evening BBC1 slot vacated by Sherlock after this coming weekend. Presumably episode 2 will air the following Sunday (29th January).

Look out for this one – it has BAFTAs and shed-loads of awards written all over it – on this occasion fully justifiably if the concluding episode matches the quality of the first.

How much sheer dramatic, artistic quality does Birdsong deliver? Sufficient sir.

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In the discussion after the showing I asked whether we may not have reached a point where a film of this quality could be given a brief distribution in cinemas first: not as one 3 hour film but two sequential episodes on separate weekends recreating in the cinema the excitement of anticipation of a TV series . This would offer an opportunity to see a film under the ideal conditions of large screen and top quality sound – for those who value these elements. It seems to me there could well be a market for such a new form of distribution.

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