‘Birdsong’: Episode 1 review

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Philip Martin’s adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ classic novel Birdsong looks gorgeous. Good enough to be shown on the big screen, it’s every bit as glossy and enticing as the big US TV shows like Mad Men that controller of BBC drama commissioning Ben Stephenson wants it to compete with.

Lushly claustrophobic 1910 scenes alternate with grim but equally claustrophobic First World War scenes – a deviation from the book, where events take place consecutively. But the narrative technique works.

Moving between the pre-war and war years means that the plot can become two inter-connected story lines whose build-ups and resolutions can both be prolonged without the pace needing to be slowed down.

Despite these shifts in time the narrative never feels disjointed. Writer Abi Morgan (The Hour, The Iron Lady) skilfully allows the violence of the war scenes to bleed into the love scenes and the sweetness of the love scenes to bleed into the war scenes with their comradery and tenderness, shedding new light on two age-old subjects.

There’s something ominous about those feverishly-beautiful 1910 floral interiors when a moment before you’ve been watching what will happen not very far away only a few years later. When the scene of Isabelle and Stephen going away together is followed by a shot of a soldier’s home-made grave you can’t help wondering if their love is going to end as badly as their world does.

The two leads (and indeed the supporting cast) offer excellent performances. Eddie Redmayne exudes a controlled, upright forlornness as hero Stephen Wraysford and Clémence Poésy is intriguingly enigmatic as Isabelle, the young French woman he falls in love with, unhappily married to a man to whom violence comes more naturally than sex (Laurent Lafitte).

The war scenes are gripping, with Philip Martin showing them close-up as the men themselves would have seen them – all collapsing tunnel walls and comrades trapped under rubble. In keeping with the book, the director focuses on a particularly dangerous, unglamorous and little-mentioned style of trench war-fare called tunnelling; particularly hard to watch for anyone who suffers from claustrophobia.

It tests the men to their limit, bringing out both their terror and their heroism and creating a bond between them that transcends class. And the intimate focus on a handful of soldiers keeps the war scenes every bit as emotionally charged as the earlier romance.

So far this is a wonderful take on a novel that has proved notoriously hard to adapt to the screen since its publication in 1993.

Aired at 9pm on Sunday 22nd January 2012 on BBC One.

> Buy the book on Amazon.

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