While promoting “War Horse” last year, director Steven Spielberg noted the lack of contemporary films about World War I. A major player in the shaping of the World War II narrative (“Empire of the Sun,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Band of Brothers”), he cautioned that his new work wasn’t a “quintessential war movie or even my statement of the Great War,” leaving the door open for other stories to be told.
Now, filmmakers are showing renewed interest in World War I. The second season of “Downton Abbey” used it as a springboard for its soapy plotlines, bringing home its soldiers on leave so often that it’s no wonder the war lasted years. This year, BBC and HBO will release a miniseries of Ford Madox Ford’s complex tetralogy Parade’s End, starring Benedict Cumberbatch (who appeared in “War Horse”) and Rebecca Hall. Meanwhile, Mimi Leder plans to direct a third version of All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque’s seminal war novel, possibly with Daniel Radcliffe.
But before all of that, on Sunday, April 22, "Masterpiece Theater" debuts “Birdsong,” a two-parter starring Eddie Redmayne (“My Week with Marilyn”) and Clémence Poésy (“Harry Potter”). Adapted from Sebastian Faulks’ popular 1993 novel by acclaimed screenwriter Abi Morgan (“The Hour,” “The Iron Lady”), it follows Stephen Wraysford, a young English lieutenant whose war experience is framed by memories of his affair with Isabelle, an unhappily married French woman, years before. (It drops the novel’s third plotline, set in the 1970s.)
Birdsong is the second — and best — novel in a loose trilogy set in France during World War I (with The Girl at the Lion d’Or and Charlotte Gray, later filmed with Cate Blanchett). Faulks is enamored with the romance of French life and his novels detail the sensuality of the food, the simplicity of rustic living, and the beauty of the land, even (or especially) as war threatens this existence. This adaptation captures this, contrasting the sunny, gossamer idyll of Stephen and Isabelle’s pre-war relationship (Redmayne and Poésy are quietly excellent) with the dehumanized violence of the barren front.
As the horror of the trenches reflect his psyche, deadened by Isabelle’s sudden desertion, Stephen is filmed regularly in forward motion, as if indicating the slipping away of a past — and a tranquil world — no longer possible after such destruction. In the final scene, when the camera pulls in on him, it feels like a casting off of the emotional wreckage of the past and of the claustrophobia of the trenches, a moment about the desire to live, about a life, at last, in the present.