The Pride and Prejudice mini-series starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle established that an audience for 5-hour-long, romantic period pieces exists, but it seems the creators of PBS’s Birdsong missed a crucial piece of that equation: it was based on Jane Austen’s beloved novel. Sebastian Faulks’s novel Birdsong, though critically acclaimed and well-written, doesn’t have that base of millions of people who grew up reading it. Regardless, the PBS two-part mini-series features two talented actors, Eddie Redmayne and Clemence Poesy, competent direction, and some great cinematography. Yet it falls short of expectations. For all the talent that’s assembled here, the chemistry between Redmayne and Poesy never works, and the scenes in between have a number of unconvincing performances to worsen the situation. Birdsong deserves a screen adaptation, but one better than this.
Years before he would serve in the French trenches of World War I in 1916, Stephen (Redmayne) spent time there visiting with the Azaire family headed by Rene (Laurent Lafitte) and Isabelle Azaire (Poesy). Stephen is immediately smitten with the outspoken but polite Isabelle, and as the two spend increasing amounts of time together during his stay, an affair begins. The forbidden romance stays with him through the years and becomes the bright spot that he anchors to as he serves in the war, though eventually the memories seem more of a distraction, an obsession over a lost love he can never have. After a tunnel collapse takes one of his soldiers, Stephen becomes acquainted with Jack (Game of Thrones’ Joseph Mawle), whose friendship helps him to gradually let go of something that never was in favor of the things that could be.
Fans of the novel will quickly notice a glaring difference between the mini-series and the novel in its total lack of the third part of the puzzle: the “modern day” flashforward to the 1970s that made up a decent portion of the book. Though they might not like its omission, it allows the story to focus on two more entwined parts of the story, and it ultimately rounds out to a smart decision.
Both Redmayne and Poesy are great actors when the direction and writing can match them, but in this case they fail to carry through in making us believe Redmayne is a man forever changed by war and Poesy a sexually repressed wife (at different times, mind you). Redmayne never finds the correct body language to carry himself like a soldier and he always seems to maintain the same disposition that serves him well in the flashbacks to his pre-war life. The same can be said for many of the supporting soldier cast, they never successfully sell their characters. Poesy’s shortcomings have everything to do with the three-way tension between Stephen, Isabelle and her husband. Though the latter is played off in a minor role in that condescending “tut tut, women are mentally and emotionally infirm” way of olden times, it’s a key ingredient to the story and how convincing Isabelle’s discovery of fulfillment in Stephen’s arms appears. Her husband may be an ass, but she’s not altogether without her own self-defensive wits; she’s a capable woman who can see her husband’s bluster and posturing as a stroke of his ego, and that makes her desire or need for outside comfort less convincing.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
The disc includes three featurettes, two of which divide the story between its war and romance halves and then examines their structure, production, and more. Together they offer the bulk of the meat in the bonus features, and they make the third piece, a basic behind the scenes look, feel extraneous. Then again, a lot of work goes into the creation of a 3-hour war and romance epic, from costumes to scenery to the on-location sets in Hungary, and fans of the main feature will likely find the information found here to be quite interesting. Either way, any or all of them are worthwhile if you find yourself curious after watching the series.
"Birdsong" is on sale April 24, 2012 and is not rated. Drama, Romance. Directed by Philip Martin. Written by Sebastian Faulks (novel), Abi Morgan (screenplay). Starring Clemence Poesy, Eddie Redmayne, Matthew Goode, Joseph Mawle.