Masterpiece Classic “Birdsong”

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Love Conquers War

Eddie Redmayne (My Week with Marilyn) and Clémence Poésy (Harry Potter) star as two lovers whose fiery affair precedes the firestorm of World War I, on Birdsong, adapted by screenwriter Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady, Shame) from Sebastian Faulks’ impassioned novel. Birdsong airs in two parts on Sunday April 22 and 29 at 8 p.m. on Eight, Arizona PBS. Like Downton Abbey, also seen on MASTERPIECE, Birdsong focuses on romance amid the trauma of Britain’s national tragedy of the 20th century: the Great War.

This stunning adaptation was universally acclaimed during its recent UK broadcast with The Daily Telegraph (London) calling it “a triumph … an elegiac, lyrical film … better than Spielberg's War Horse.” The Observer (England) judged it “that rare thing, a screen adaptation of a book that is not a pale approximation.” The Daily Mail (London) praised the film’s evocation of “the aching horror of war contrasted with the passion and stolen embraces of forbidden love fulfilled.” And The Guardian (London) wrote, “The war scenes are extraordinary … Redmayne and Poésy are perfect together … It gradually builds up to an intensity and power that takes hold of you. Both the war, and the love.”

Birdsong opens on the Western Front in 1916, with British Lieutenant Stephen Wraysford escaping in his memory to a sunny French estate that he visited in 1910 as the guest of textile factory owner René Azaire. The estate is not far from where Stephen is now stationed in a warren of grim trenches. Invited that summer by Azaire to learn about French manufacturing, Stephen was soon hopelessly smitten with the businessman’s much younger wife, Isabelle — and she with him, though barely a word passed between them.

As this flashback unfolds, the two are drawn into a torrid secret affair. Its emotional power and inevitable difficulties later haunt Stephen in the trenches, where his duties take him into one of the most horrific arenas of the war: the tunnels dug under no man’s land toward German lines so that explosives can be placed beneath the enemy.

Dreamlike, Birdsong weaves together the stories of the past and present—each tempestuous in its own way and fated to intersect. At the front, Stephen hears that something big is up from the coldly efficient Captain Gray, and on the eve of battle the troops are harangued by the deluded Colonel Barclay. Stephen’s closest thing to a friend is Captain Weir, the engineer in charge of tunneling. A working-class digger, Jack Firebrace, becomes Stephen’s unlikely soul mate.

The big operation is portended in one of Stephen’s reveries—of a bucolic boating party with Isabelle and her family down a languid French river. The sign next to the river identifies it as the Somme, where in 1916 the British were to suffer their worst one-day combat losses in history.

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