Birdsong Review: Do Eddie Redmayne, Clemence Poesy Bring The Book To Life?

Birdsong Review: 'The Heart Is Always Somewhere Else'

At one point in the mid-1990s, it seemed you couldn’t squeeze onto the tube for copies of Birdsong being sniffed over by Sebastian Faulks' legions of readers. More than three million copies of his ode to love and World War I have been sold worldwide, and there have been nearly two decades of discussion about when it would arrive on our screens big or small.

And now, we have it. Curtain up, it's 1916, and the ravaged battlefields of trench warfare, familiar to any recent War Horse cinema-goers. In the centre stands officer Stephen Wraysford, silent, still and brooding - it's uprising star Eddie Redmayne, all cheekbones and bee-stung lips, with eyes that look far too light-filled and innocent for his surroundings.

If his war isn't bleak enough already, Wraysford's first experience is having his soldiers used as clay-kickers in the trench tunnels, and then losing one when they cave in. It's apparent our hero is apparently a bit of a cold fish and perplexing to his soldiers, until he holds a dying comrade's hand and tells him to think of his sweetheart. This is the first chink of light shone onto his private inner world that we will learn about in flashback, and through the various drawings he makes of a sweet-faced girl to put on his mess wall.

1910 - Amiens, northern France: A tableau heartbreaking in its gentility compared with what is to come. It's all white bow ties, flowers and trees in a French countryhouse garden, where Wraysford encounters factory owner Rene Azaire and his unhappy young wife Isabelle (Harry Potter actress Clemence Poesy). The chemistry between Stephen and Isabelle is immediately electric, something her husband is too busy smoking his cigars and quenching workers' uprisings to notice.

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Their glimpses of each other - in the town square, on woodland pathways, at boating parties - are impossibly tantalising, beautifully photographed and lit, tinted in nostalgic sepia even. The linen suits and lace dresses soon make way for a full-blown love affair, even though not much is said. It's all in the eyes and, goodness me, there's a lot of looking at each other. Plus some bouts of "Do you feel guilty? ... No, is that terrible?" back and forth between the bonking - all a bit self-indulgent and long drawn out, but these are Wraysford's memories, remember, and something's got to keep him going in that trench.

In comparison with all this dappled sunlight and glimpse of an ankle, the wartime stuff is so bleak that, like Wraysford, I was left aching to return to the greenery, let alone the passion and romance, of his pre-war Amiens. As his trench comrade Firebrace reflects when reprimanded for sleeping on duty, "The heart is always somewhere else."

Birdsong concludes next Sunday. Here are some pictures:


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