For those of you who adored the Sebastian Faulks novel Birdsong, the second instalment of its two-part TV adaptation airs Sunday.
Birdsong (Sunday, PBS, 9 p.m. on Masterpiece Theatre) is an interesting but troubling adaptation of the novel. It’s troubling because it suggests rather than dramatizes much of the intensity of the powerful story. And it suggests with a sort of self-indulgence that bespeaks an unnecessary reverence for the material. There’s an awful lot of silence, brooding looks and close-ups of beautiful faces.
The gist of the story is that both war and forbidden love are hellish but transformative experiences. Some readers finished the book convinced that at its core is an intense eroticism. Others saw it as one of the great commentaries on the horror of the First World War. In this adaptation, there’s too little of both.
Eddie Redmayne (described by the London Sunday Times recently as “the posh totty of the moment,” which means he’s super-duper good-looking) plays Stephen Wraysford, whose life in love and in war is the main storyline.
In 1910, the young Englishman visits France and stays with factory owner René Azaire. He also falls passionately in love with Azaire’s wife, Isabelle (Clémence Poésy), who has suffered abuse from her husband. While this fact emerges slowly in the novel, it’s almost immediately explicit here. The tight-lipped, nervous Englishman experiences passion at a level beyond his understanding.
Later, he is Lieutenant Wraysford, serving through the Battle of the Somme and the massacre at Messines Ridge. He becomes a cold fish, hardened utterly by war, and is a man seemingly in search of destruction. Before the war ends, there are further complications with Isabelle and with her sister.
What we get in the adaptation is an homage to the repressed feelings of an Englishman. Some viewers will savour the lush period evocation, especially those segments in which Stephen and Isabelle live out their affair in the gorgeous prewar French setting. Others will be annoyed at the elliptical quality of the storytelling. So much attention is paid to Stephen’s face that it becomes a fetish. Stephen doesn’t say enough and the camera tries to convey too much. At times, one wishes such rapt attention were paid to the face of Poésy.
Still, this is definitely worth your time. Don’t expect a Downton Abbey, but do expect an adoration of a very English kind of pain.
Also airing this weekend
JR Digs – Man with a Van (Saturday, Global, 2 a.m.) is back for a new season. The show won a surprise but deserved Gemini nomination for best talk series last year. Host J.R. Digs drives around in a van and interviews people in the back. That’s it. On the first new episode (it airs after Saturday Night Live in the East, and before SNL in the West) he has Brent Butt in the van. There’s a complex story about how he was hoping to have George Clooney, and it almost happened, and then Butt stepped in. Butt is always funny in that characteristic genial manner. As for Digs, you have to admire this strange and wonderful little show.
The Good Wife (Sunday, CBS, Global, 9 p.m.) reaches its season finale. What’s promised is a small series of plot manoeuvres that will continue to play out next season, especially with Kalinda (Archie Panjabi). Also, Louis Canning (Michael J. Fox) and Patti Nyholm (Martha Plimpton) unite in an attempt to take down the firm Lockhart & Gardner. Meanwhile, Alicia (Julianna Margulies) and Peter (Chris Noth) must consider uniting because Mike Kresteva (Matthew Perry) is on the warpath. Oh, what delicious twists to leave you hanging till next season if you love the show.
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