The concluding part of the BBC’s grand adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong struck some emotional chords but ultimately felt like a sanitised version of the book’s raw honesty.
This adaptation has been swamped with praise from virtually all corners. It has a lot going for it, with fresh faced young leads making a name for themselves in Hollywood, lavish locations and high production standards. But for some reason I never really embraced it as I would have liked to.
Silly little things irritated me. For example the sun drenched trenches. We had to wait thirty four minutes for some appropriately miserable rain in this second episode and it turned out to be nothing more than a slight shower. There was a similar lack of precipitation in the first half. Granted the Somme offensive took place in the summer but Birdsong as a whole tracks Stephen’s progress through the entire war. More than the lack of rain, it was the constantly bright blue sky that unsettled me. I’m sure the outlook didn’t appear quite so sunny to the men.
Predictably the Somme sequences reined in the scale of horror and death presented in the book, although it’s impossible to tell whether this was an artistic choice or one necessitated by a lack of extras or BBC sensibilities. The setup to the battle worked well and I felt a truly moving attachment to the story for the first time, although this was largely squandered by the underwhelming brevity of the “big push” itself.
The key scenes with Jack Firebrace and Isabelle that followed were also disappointing in one way or another, meaning that the story fizzled out somewhat for me. However thanks to impressive period detail and a mostly assured performance from Eddie Redmayne Birdsong remained a worthwhile watch. In the end my hazy, idealised recollections of the book hindered my enjoyment of the story but there was little wrong with it overall.
Exeter graduate Abi Morgan has hit the big time of late, penning scripts for a number of high profile projects, with mixed success. In my view the dementia driven structure of The Iron Lady didn’t work at all, leaving Meryl Streep’s eerily accurate portrayal of Britain’s only female Prime Minister as the film’s only saving grace. Shame, her collaboration with Steve McQueen, missed out on Oscar nominations despite significant critical buzz. The Hour, set in a BBC newsroom covering the Suez crisis, was enjoyable but also not without fault.
She continues her preoccupation with the past and narratives that flash backwards and forwards in time with a long awaited adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ bestselling Birdsong. Her task in bringing to life one of modern literature’s most talked about and analysed books was daunting. The filth of the battlefield and an illicit affair had to be conveyed in equal measure, and in a manner fit for broadcast on the BBC. A balance had to be struck between the horror of war and the urgent beauty of love. The book is so adored by many because it got the mix right and reconfigured the way we think about the trenches with a hefty dose of humanity.
That said the book was not perfect. Morgan wisely chops away completely, as a previous stage adaptation also did, the sections where a modern day granddaughter pieces together the story of her war hero ancestor. The action of the plot in general is accelerated and streamlined. But inevitably something essential that gave the novel such emotional resonance is lost.
Morgan chooses to flit between the pre-war and battle scenes of the book. By the time we reached the trenches in the novel we were already immersed in Stephen Wraysford’s life but here we do not care enough when we first see him onscreen, in inexplicably sun baked trenches, already a hardened veteran. Eddie Redmayne is convincing as a soldier, less so as a lover. Harrowing at times, touching at others, this adaptation didn’t seduce me in the pre-war scenes of intense romance.