‘Birdsong’: Episode 2 review

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For a drama about war, a surprising amount of dying happens quietly off-screen in the concluding part of Philip Martin’s adaptation of Birdsong, to devastating effect.

There is no death-bed scene for the heroine Isabelle (Clemence Poesy); her lover Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) merely hears about her death from her sister Jeanne (Marie-Josee Croze) – almost casually, while sitting with her in a cafe. The same goes for Firebrace’s (Joseph Mawle’s) young son, an unseen but symbolically-charged presence in the script.

Meanwhile people are killed opportunistically like Captain Weir (Richard Madden) in a ‘here one moment, gone the next’ way that stresses the ephemerality and fragility of human life and the stupid callousness of war.

By denying the characters (and the viewers) a first-hand glimpse of the dying process scriptwriter Abi Morgan deprives them and us of the chance to accept the reality of a death and the catharsis of mourning it. The effect is to evoke what it would have been like for the millions of people who learned of the death of someone they loved in a few lines in a letter.

If the drama emphasises the impersonal predation of death it does the same of the conflict itself. The scene in which Stephen learns that the war is over from a German soldier and collapses against him in relief is a reminder that despite the unprecedented savagery of the warfare, many of the soldiers bore their enemy counterparts no particular ill will – as the famous 1914 Christmas day football matches testify. They were just doing their duty and following orders.

Last week’s opening episode showed the First World War’s devastating effect on a culture – a destruction that nonetheless paved the way for the brighter, more modern world of the 1920’s. The scene in the second episode in which Stephen threatens a prostitute with a knife shows the arguably more sinister devastation it effected on individuals – the internal damage it caused that didn’t always pave the way for something newer and brighter.

But this second episode isn’t depressing, despite the destruction it shows and the cooler, less ramped-up scenes between Stephen and Isabelle. The personal losses Stephen experiences are balanced by the discovery at the end of the drama that he has a daughter. Life goes on, seems to be the message.

And if his relationship with Jeanne doesn’t come across as the high voltage affair his relationship with her sister was, it is still tender and compatible with the dying Firebrace’s observation that love is what matters most in life.

It’s worth mentioning the sound-scape in this drama – birdsong that evokes a vanished world – and also the affectingly low-key score by Nicholas Hooper, when the creators could have drowned the show’s more poignant moments in a War Horse-style orchestral slush.

Well-acted and beautifully-shot, the second episode of Birdsong wraps up this tragedy of love and war masterfully.

Aired at 9pm on Sunday 29th January 2012 on BBC One.

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