Birdsong episode 1 review

The BBC’s Sunday night programming travels back to WWI, with Abi Morgan’s achingly bleak and romantic two-part adaptation of Birdsong. Read our review of episode one here…


This review contains spoilers.

Sebastian Faulks once said he’d be happy if his acclaimed 1993 novel was never made into a film, and until recently, Birdsong looked to have escaped that fate. Previous attempts to translate Faulks’ multi-layered WWI story to the screen had all fallen at various hurdles, ending with the project wandering in a cinematic no-man’s land.

Along comes Auntie, leaving no literary stone unturned in her bid to bring quality drama to Sunday night telly, and trampling all over Julian Fellowes’ posh frocks and bandages soap on the other side in the process. 

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Hand in hand with screenwriter Abi Morgan (The Hours, The Iron Lady) and director Philip Martin (Mo), the BBC has waved its wand over Faulks’ novel to bring us this achingly bleak and romantic two part adaptation starring Eddie Redmayne and Clémence Poésy. 

Birdsong tells the story of Stephen Wraysford, an infantry lieutenant in the trenches of WWI whose pre-war life was marked by a tragically consuming affair. Wraysford is an artistic type, a café sketcher and whittler of figurines, one of many men of his generation trying to survive the trauma of war.

Despite Sherlock having finished, it’s good to see the Beeb has kept up its high cheekbone quota by casting Eddie Redmayne in the role of Wraysford. The Chronicles of Narnia’s Ben Barnes took on the part in the recent stage version, but Redmayne – perhaps it’s the Etonian vowels, perhaps the combination of pasty freckles and bee-stung fashion model pout – seems like the definitive choice for the conflicted lieutenant.

Morgan’s script slices up Wraysford’s chronology, interlacing memories of his 1910 summer of love in Amiens with his 1916 experiences in the nearby Picardy trenches. Each period has its own anguish, though it’s the trench and tunnel sequences that elevate Birdsong above bodice-ripping and confront viewers with an aching sense of claustrophobic dread. 

It’s by no means an easy watch. Yes it’s a Sunday night period drama, but Birdsong takes us well out of bonnets, gossip and petticoats territory.

Poésy (Fleur Delacour from the Harry Potter series) plays Isabelle Azaire, a romantic French beauty suffocated by the good marriage she made to an abusive bourgeois widower. Wife to the textile factory owner whose machinery Wraysford has been sent to study, Isabelle is stuck in a carousel of genteel picnics, card games and dinners with aged relations until the arrival of her husband’s young house guest.

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Redmayne and Poésy make a luminously good-looking couple on screen. Redmayne brings a Ralph Fiennes in The English Patient intensity to things, which wasn’t in evidence for his competent turn in My Week With Marilyn.

The 1916 scenes are sweepingly romantic, with Redmayne and Poésy rivalling Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle’s record in the BBC’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice for angsty longing looks across drawing rooms and well-trimmed lawns. It’s surprising the pair don’t sink under the weight of unexpressed sexual tension in the boating scene, when Philip Martin’s camera lingers (boy, does it ever linger) on lusty close-ups of ankles and longing faces.

The earlier scenes school ITV’s Downton Abbey in why slower can be better, though that lingering camera may well test the patience of anyone not swept up in the love affair. Not to worry, because a bracing round of Mellors and Lady Chatterley-like rudeness up against tree trunks follows close behind.

For all the whirl of romance and lust in 1910, Birdsong’s portrait of a group of fatigue-drunk men watching shells causing their world to literally fall down around their ears is the adaptation at its strongest. Game of Thrones’ Joseph Mawle particularly impresses as Jack Firebrace, the clay-kicker who bears Wraysford’s body across the makeshift cemetery after his painful rebirth. 

Morgan’s script has snipped off Faulks’ tertiary narrative, which takes place in 1970s England, most likely to slim down the story and avoid the ‘whistle-stop tour’ effect to which book-to-screen adaptations so often fall prey. 

Losing the breathing spaces provided by the novel’s post-war sections intensifies what remains on screen, giving viewers no respite from the claustrophobia of the trenches or from the intensity of Stephen and Isabelle’s love affair. It makes the desperate sadness of Birdsong seem – if this is even possible – more desperate and more sad.

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Director Philip Martin gives Birdsong’s trench sequences the appearance of a contemporary photograph using a desaturated palette of sepia, mud and khaki.  His direction isn’t flashy but slow and ponderous, with unimposing transitions between scenes and periods, rendering the whole with an appropriately elegiac quality.

Birdsong may have a difficult job in trying to match the strength of Faulks’ descriptive prose and his evocation of the degradation of human life, but it comes as close as you could imagine an adaptation might.

The best thing about it? Birdsong’s compassion is spent all on the suffering of human beings, there’s not a war horse in sight.

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