Birdsong debuts tonight on PBS as a part of the network's Masterpiece series. It will air at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 8 p.m. Central and Mountain in most markets, but you should check local listings.
In the latest episode of Fringe, set in 2036, Walter Bishop is found. Walter had spent 20 years in a state of suspended animation, frozen in amber. He did this to himself to escape capture by the malevolent aliens who had (or will—time-travel plots, y’know?) taken over our world. Walter’s condition might be said to mirror that of Sebastian Faulks’ 1993 novel Birdsong, which has been frozen in amber, inert and seemingly lifeless but handsome-looking, and, as they say down at the funeral parlor, beautifully preserved, by the BBC and put on display on Masterpiece. This might have seemed a necessary step to studio and network executives who want to escape the constant demands, especially in the British media, for a Birdsong movie. Faulks’ novel is well-regarded the English-speaking world over, but in England, it’s what A Confederacy Of Dunces is in New Orleans. The two books have next to nothing in common, except that they both have rabid followings made up of people who think there’s a great movie in there and can’t understand why nobody has made it yet.
Maybe one reason that Birdsong has had trouble getting made into a movie is that the movie has already been made. It’s called The English Patient. The stories are far from identical, but the appeal must be the same. Both are very literary novels, originally published a year apart, with nonlinear narratives centered on stiff-upper-lip heroes who have been destroyed, or at least emotionally deadened, in the course of a world war and are remembering the happiness they found in the arms of a woman who happened to be married to somebody else. The fans who believed that Birdsong absolutely had to be made into a movie—and who, in some cases, were horrified to learn that it would have to settle for becoming a measly TV show—must have been imaging something like the romantic travel-footage vibe of The English Patient, with forbidden love breaking out in exotic locations. When Anthony Minghella adapted the Michael Ondaatje book, he had to simplify a lot of things, but he didn’t beat the weirdness out of the source material entirely. It’s not every day that you get to see the Academy Award for Best Picture given to a movie whose hero expresses his devotion to his lover by cutting a deal with the Nazis.
The romantic relationship at the center of Birdsong is between Stephen Wraysford (Eddie Redmayne) and Isabelle (Clémence Poésy), who meet in France in 1910, when he is staying at her home and working with her husband, René (Laurent Lafitte), a prosperous textile manufacturer. Isabelle has been slipping food from the family kitchen to the hungry families of her husband’s underpaid workers, and if that doesn’t tell you everything you could possibly want to know about René, you learn the rest when she whispers to Stephen, “My husband would not approve,” and he stammers, “Madame, forgive me, I cannot stay silent. Every night, I hear you crying.” Presently, René clears up any doubt about just how big an idiot he is by leaving these two alone in the house. First they throw themselves at each other, then they get a grip and have a little staring contest, and then she leads him to the door of her personal erotic Dreamatorium. Luckily, she has the key.
In the book, Stephen’s journal recording the story of this doomed romance are discovered, in 1978, by Elizabeth, Stephen and Isabelle’s pregnant daughter. (After Isabelle leaves her husband for Stephen, she panics and runs off when she discovers that she’s pregnant.) Abi Morgan, who wrote the TV adaptation, has junked the entire framework with the adult Elizabeth, so that Birdsong is now a bunch of scenes of the characters during wartime intercut with a bunch of flashbacks to the time of the affair. It’s a perfectly reasonable solution to the problem of shortening and focusing the material, except that it all seems so simple now, and with that simplicity comes a heightened awareness that both the love scenes and the trench-warfare scenes feel secondhand. There isn’t much going on here that you haven’t seen before.
The best way to make this familiar story seem new would be to make it so passionate that it would bypass viewers’ minds entirely and make a direct appeal to the heart. Instead of passion, Birdsong has production design. Both the romantic scenes at the French country estate and the bloody, muddy hell of the trenches are beautifully composed and lit in a way that screams, “Instant classic!” It’s impressive—if you thought that the trench scenes in Downton Abbey were lacking something, you may be relieved to know that it was probably because everyone in Europe who knows how to create a perfect simulation of a World War I battlefield was already tied up, working on Birdsong. But it’s not involving or expressive, except of the filmmakers’ ambitions. When there’s a lingering close-up of Stephen’s hands, you just stare at the immaculate arrangement of dirt under his fingernails and wonder if there’s some special award for Best Anti-Manicure.
Isabelle is scarcely a character here; She’s just a hauntingly beautiful young woman with a good heart and a passionate nature who, for the sake of the plot, makes some bewildering choices. That means that, of the two leads, Poésy may be better off. She doesn’t have to do much except appear vulnerable and hurt, and she brings something intriguingly off-kilter to the sex scenes, where her itchy, obsessed stare sometimes makes her look enticingly cat-like and sometimes like a kind of insect. Redmayne is trying to play the Stephen of the book, which is to say that he goes from being naïve to snobbish and self-pitying, and isn’t always easy to like. But neither the script nor the director, Philip Martin, guided him in how to express the layered, tormented sensibility that would make his gloominess compelling, or that would help a viewer understand what’s supposed to be going on inside his head when he pulls a knife on a prostitute he’s in bed with (after his reunion with Isabelle, who now has a scar on her face). In order to convey the combined effects of a broken heart and The Great War, he does a lot of traumatized staring. He does look traumatized, but when it comes to seeming both traumatized and interesting to watch, he’s no Walter Bishop.
Birdsong is often perched just this side of self-parody, whether it’s in the love scenes or the clipped exchanges that Stephen enjoys having with his best mate (played by Richard Madden, Game Of Thrones’ Robb Stark). “Are you drunk?” “Not nearly enough.” “Who’s she?” “Someone I once knew.” “Would you believe it if I told you I’d never been with a woman?” “Never. How old are you? “ “Old enough.” This kind of thing seems to get to people whether it’s done brilliantly or not, especially if the images have been buffed to a fare-the-well. Birdsong looks elegant and classy, but it vulgarizes Sebastian Faulks’ ideas about continuity and contrasts in life by intercutting the first shots of Stephen and Isabelle greedily enjoying each other’s bodies with Stephen being horribly injured in battle and being carried out in a stretcher, as if to show just how preferable it can be not to be shot up in a tunnel. (I guess showing him, in peacetime, making a peanut butter sandwich just wouldn’t have gotten the job done.) It even cuts directly from men writing letters to their loved ones back home—letters we hear them read aloud in voiceover—to those same men meeting their unhappy fates in battle. Birdsong doesn’t really have a feel for the loss of control that comes with romantic passion, but it does shamelessness like a Hollywood pro.