This review contains spoilers.
Staring was the big story in last week’s deliberate and measured opener for the BBC’s new adaptation of Birdsong. Characters stared longingly, lustily, they stared into the past, stared at the devastation war brings. We stared back at their perfect faces, plump lips and cupid’s bows. Everyone was beautiful, and everyone was in pain. It was like a Gucci ad for the horrors of war.
The staring continued in part two, as did the pain. If last week’s episode wrenched your heart, then this one will have sunk it to your stomach. Personal miseries – the death of Firebrace’s boy, of Jack himself, Stephen losing Isabelle – were played against the wider story of human degradation in war, creating the telly equivalent of being shelled with suffering.
It was unrelenting, volley after volley of helpless sadness. The Beeb had better have our TV license reminder letters delivered in person this year so they can be followed by a reassuring cuddle to make up for putting us all through it.
It wasn’t all doomed youth and gloom though. The ending, despite avoiding the far-too-comforting-for-Birdsong trick of ageing Stephen, Jeanne and Françoise for one of those “and they all lived happily ever after” moments, at least hinted in that direction.
Stephen’s second rebirth too, emerging into the sunlight as war is declared over was a moment of desperate relief. Firebrace died with a vision of his lost son and a message of love on his lips. War is terrible, Birdsong tells us, and life can be cruel, but people are the best of it.
The cast, particularly those in uniform, were pretty much the best of this adaptation. Redmayne’s good looks may have initially worried fans of the novel, but that face was proved to carry cruelty, hardness and desperation just as beautifully as it did love-struck.
Joseph Mawle stood out as the destroyed Firebrace, while Matthew Goode and Richard Madden as Captains Gray and Weir, their roles necessarily shrunk down from the novel, were both strong. Thomas Turgoose (This Is England) fits the period so well he should be sealed in aspic to play WWI youngsters from now on, despite his shell-shocked rocking post-carnage being one of the least convincing moments after the big push.
For, as we knew all along, the football, neighbourly bathing, bawdy songs and camaraderie in camp couldn’t last. The time arrived for the boys and men to walk into the line of fire, and – just like a good Romeo and Juliet makes you scream for her to wake up before he uncaps that vial of poison – I was willing it not to happen.
When it did happen, it was a harrowing watch. The scene of love and lie-filled letters being sent home the night before may have been designed to pull on our heartstrings, but it’s hard to think of a cause more deserving of tears than the senseless deaths Birdsong showed us.
Episode two was just as slow-moving as number one – the only thing anyone did at any speed was get killed – so those frustrated by the glacial pace of last week’s opener will have been similarly so for the conclusion. If you weren’t turned off by the torpor, Philip Martin’s slow-paced style created a creeping sense of dread utterly fitting for the story.
Birdsong couldn’t help but fall prey to one or two clichés of WWI on screen (though its makers happily limited themselves to just the one moustachioed toff puffing away optimistically on a pipe whilst promising they’ll all be toasting Fritz’s defeat by this time tomorrow), but on balance the visceral tragedy far outweighed the weepy melodrama.
Ultimately, Abi Morgan and Philip Martin’s telescoped take on Birdsong did justice to the novel’s damning message on war. It was slow, yes, but also beautiful, well-written, and cathartic viewing. I’m just glad – and I mean this in the best of ways – that it’s over.