Adapted for the BBC by Abi Morgan, Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong (the original book of which I am ashamed to admit I have never read) is haunting, beautiful, and positively brimming with tension.
We move seamlessly between the barren landscape of the trenches, where Eddie Redmayne stares contemplatively into the distance in his opening scene as Lieutenant Stephen Wraysford, and Amiens, where through hazy lighting we see his love affair with the beautiful but distant Isabelle Azaire (Clémence Poésy) unfold. This is an affair of few words, as the pair seem content at first simply to throw each other smouldering glances and when the sexual tension becomes too much to bear, there is no room for anything but passion. It’s believable passion though, perhaps just because they’re both so beautiful that the sex could never be anything but fantastic.
There is a little more dialogue in the trench scenes, but even there words are used sparingly, and Wraysford spends much of his time brooding over his lost love. Luckily, the slow pace of trench warfare allows plenty of time for such brooding, but there is something else to command Wraysford’s attention: the tunnels being dug under the trenches in an attempt to attack the Germans from below, which threaten the lives of Wraysford and his men, but also bring his into contact with tunneller Jack Firebrace, who will prove to be very important to him. These tunnel scenes provide a more realistic, hellish view of life in the trenches, while the opening shots seem to romanticise the image, despite the blood and grime. Perhaps it’s the music: the constant cacophony of gunfire certainly makes a more realistic backdrop to the rest of the trench scenes.
Not having read the book (as I mentioned previously), I am in the dark as to how events will develop in the second and final part of the drama, although it is obvious that things will not end well for Stephen and Isabelle in their rose-tinted world. But the slow, steady build-up of tension throughout the first episode makes me glad that I now have less than a day to wait for the conclusion.
Birdsong concludes on Sunday 29th January at 9PM on BBC1. Episode 1 is currently available on BBC iPlayer.