Following Sherlock and Great Expectations, another one of Britain’s favourite novels, Birdsong has been adapted for the small screen by the BBC. The first part was broadcast last Sunday. The book, written by Sebastian Faulks, is considered a modern retelling of the Great War. Set in pre-war Amiens and the Somme trenches, it chronicles parts of the life of Stephen Wraysford and his affair with Isabelle Azaire.
The BBC adaptation opens in the trenches with Wraysford, portrayed by Eddie Redmayne, and moves back and forth between the war and 1910 as the Englishman recalls his summer in Northern France. The young man was then staying with the Azaires, a wealthy family. He is young, still discovering the joys and beauties of life. Isabelle Azaire (Clémence Poésy) is locked in a loveless marriage to an older man. Together, they discover the passion of love.
The drama is defined by atmospheres, glances, not words. A look, a touch is all that is needed to convey such thoughts and feelings. Better than a million words. The pre-war setting is almost idyllic. Calm, beautiful, full of life and nature, it is comparable to being plunged into a Debussy piece or an Impressionist painting. The light and brightness render a poetic, dream-like ambiance, ideal for a love story.
The contrast with the trenches is astounding. The war is dark, muddy, loud. The country is distorted. Everywhere, destruction and death are present. The trenches rob the men of their humanity, their life and leave them empty. It feels like a Sassoon or Rosenberg poem has been brought to life. Stephen Wraysford is unrecognisable. The sheer scale of the Great War is awe-inspiring, especially in the army hospital where corpses are aligned and the amputees are taken care of. Our hero is right in the middle of it, as a lieutenant. The only escape he has left from the daily violence and danger, from insanity, is his memories from that summer six years ago, and Isabelle.
Redmayne and Poésy are splendid. The chemistry between them and their talent carry the drama and give it depth and emotion. There isn’t much dialogue, but every look says something. This adaptation may have taken decades to achieve, the result is stunning. The depiction of the war is a fantastic reproduction, in my opinion, fair to descriptions of those who lived it. The realities of the war are there. The wounded and the dead are omnipresent. The audience is taken into the muddy trenches, the tunnels. It encounters the dangers and risks, the constant bombing and guns firing. This place is impersonal, maddening, so far away from the innocence and bliss of peaceful times.
Written by Abi Morgan (Brick Lane, The Iron Lady, Shame), the main discrepancy with the book is that sections including Wraysford’s granddaughter in 1970s Britain have been cut in order to concentrate on the love affair and the historic events surrounding it. The show also provides a look into the world of tunnellers, a less well-known aspect of this war. At the time of the story, there would have been twenty-five thousand men creating a network of tunnels spanning hundreds of miles.
In the words of Edward Thomas, “Can you remember?” As fewer and fewer survivors remain, the Great War should not be forgotten. Not only in memory of those who died fighting, but also the horror and destruction. The drama provides a chance to retell and document this period. It brings it to life and reminds the audience of the dreadful nature of war. This story of violence, love, friendship, death and life is quite simply a journey through time, places and people; a great experience.
Catch the second part of Birdsong on Sunday at 9pm on BBC1