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Birdsong a Television (TV) Drama review

Updated on March 22, 2012
Birdsong, BBC Drama starring Eddie Redmayne and Clemence Poesy.
Birdsong, BBC Drama starring Eddie Redmayne and Clemence Poesy. | Source

The Book

Sebastian Faulks 1993 novel Birdsong is much loved and for good reason. In a BBC poll (The Big Read) it ranked 13th in the top 100 books as chosen by the British public where it was sandwiched between Wuthering Heights at 12 and Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier at 14.


The story of the book is that of Stephen Wraysford and his experiences during and prior to the first world war. The books is written in segments of time each building upon the one before. It is a book you can not really and fully understand until it is complete. Yet is renders it's reader enthralled, moved, heartbroken and intrigued at various stages.

Given the strong reputation of the book, many fans this one included have looked forward to the television adaptation with eagerness and a wary sense of potential disappointment. But this is not a book review, if anything having read the books disqualifies me from writing a truly accurate review of the television series. My vision like all of those that have read the book by what we already know and want to see. The writers and directors have made creative choices all of which are easily justified when applying logical thought. This does not however make it any easier for lovers of the book to relinquish what is in their heads.

So at this point let us set aside the book as wonderful as it is and move on to the television production.

A trailer for the BBC's production of Birdsong

The Show

Phillip Martin has crafted a visually arresting and moving drama from what is arguably an unfilmable novel. Both he and writer Abi Morgan (The recent critically acclaimed Shame) deserve credit for creating a piece of television that manages at times to leave the novel behind if not ever fully escaping its grasp.

From the beautific scenery of idillic 1910 France to the horrors of the same country during the horrors of the great war of 1914 - 1918. The look of the piece is rarely less than stunning however the beauty of the scenes of war can somewhat jar in the face of the reality of what was one of the most horrific and blood soaked periods in recorded human history.

Where the piece differs most significantly from the book is arguably its weakest point. Although we are offered a definitive end to the drama we are robbed of the final outcome of the story as told in the book the writer here instead opting to allow the audience to imagine a life the characters may go on to live after the final events of the drama.

Ultimately Birdsong is a handsome piece of television that will stand on its own merits and win many fans who may then go on to read the book. Is it great? No, for greatness you will have to go to the book, but if you want 3 hours of beautiful and occasionally moving drama with fine performances throughout you could do a lot worse than Birdsong


Eddie Redmayne is cast at Stephen Wraysford a character whose story connects all others within the drama. Redmayne is perhaps best known at this point for portraying Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie's son in Robert De Niro's The Good Shepherd or perhaps for his recent lead role in My Week with Marilyn where he stars alongside the oscar nominated Kenneth Branagh.

Given the task at hand of portraying a character at times both selfish and cruel, Redmayne does an admirable job of maintaining the audiences empathy throughout however much at times we may wish to dislike Stephen Wraysford. That is not to say the portrayal is likeable or intended to be, but since when did a characters likeability reflect on their attraction to an audience. Is Darth Vader likeable is Michael Corleone? Redmayne was hailed by De Niro as an actor to watch and although this performance alone does not make good on that promise it does nothing to detract from it.

Clemence Poésy stars as Isabelle beautiful and tortured lady of the house where Wraysford resides as a guest. Those familiar with Poésy from Harry Potter or Gossip Girl will remember her as sweet and enigmatic and will find her much the same here.This is in no way intended as a criticism as that same sweet, enigmatic charm is exactly what the part calls for. Isabelle by design is both distant and enchanting and Poésy does an admirable job of allowing us to understand the attraction portrayed.

Other Notable Roles

Matthew Goode as Captain Gray. An unusual role for Goode given his rising status as this is somewhat of a non-part. Although his contribution is fine the part adds nothing substantial to the narrative and it is hard to see the attraction for the actor. We can only assume the part was cut back substantially in post production.

Thomas Turgoose as Tipper (interesting to see him all grown up for those familiar with "This is England" and its TV follow ups) Sadly the performance is a one note one. Effective within the constraints of the role itself but asking little more of the young actor than the characteristics of extreme stress.

Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) as Captain Weir. An actor who is still largely unknown plays a solid role as one of the few genuinely likeable characters of the piece and can only add to his growing reputation.

Most impressive of all is Joseph Mawle whose understated and delicately played performance as Jack Firebrace was a revelation and has marked Mawle as an actor to watch with interest. A brief look at his CV will show that Mwale has already a significant body of work behind him. Let us hope that on this evidence he may appear in more prominent roles in future.


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