Sorry not to have posted for a while – I’ve been very busy at work and have had no time or energy for blogging, sadly. However, I have seen a few costume dramas in the last few weeks, so thought I’d try to do one or two reviews before they completely fade in my mind.
The Trench was one historical film I missed at the cinema, but have now finally managed to see on TV. I was especially interested to see it because it is set in the First World War – and I’ve been noticing lately that there seem to be surprisingly few films and dramas set during that conflict compared to the huge number dealing with the Second World War. I suppose this is because the two wars were so close together, and the relatively brief period in between included only a few years of talkies.
The film was both written and directed by author William Boyd – I’ve only read one of his novels, which, as far as I remember, I didn’t like very much, but this film impressed me and now I’d like to give him another try. It was made on a low budget, feeling like a TV movie, but I felt this is something which works well, as the limited sets add to the sense of suffocating claustropobia and boredom.
As with a number of older war films I’ve seen recently, this drama has an all-male cast – although the men do spend a lot of time talking about their wives and sweethearts. At the time the movie was made, its cast were mainly unknowns. That has all changed since – Danny Dyer, Julian Rhind-Tutt and James D’Arcy are all well-known names, while Daniel Craig, who plays Sgt Winter, and Cillian Murphy, seen here in a small but memorable role, have both become stars, and Ben Whishaw, cast as Keats in forthcoming movie Bright Star, is firmly on the road to stardom.
Paul Nicholls, who was well-known at the time from his stint in top UK soap EastEnders, plays the lead role, as teenage Private Billy MacFarlane, who joins up to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, Eddie. His performance feels a little understated and unsure compared to some of the slightly older actors – but I’d say that doesn’t really hurt the film, since, after all, his character is supposed to be young and uncertain.
Daniel Craig, by contrast, dominates every scene he appears in, with an intense presence which overshadows anyone else in sight. The scene which will probably stick in my mind most from this movie is one where he is eating a jar of strawberry jam made by his wife, and tries to share some with young Billy, who repeatedly refuses because he doesn’t like jam and doesn’t want to get the seeds between his teeth. Craig stays very quiet, but the expression of bewilderment and loneliness in his eyes, as his efforts at kindness are politely rebuffed, says a lot.
For most of the film, the very young men are cooped up together in the trench, waiting for something to happen, and increasingly getting irritated with one another over minor things.There’s a huge and pointless row over who stole a “naughty” postcard from a collection hoarded by one unpopular boy, who flies into an almost murderous rage over the affair. The atmosphere feels almost like my memories of boarding school, but of course with the difference that these boys won’t be going home soon, or in many cases at all.
Adding to the mix of emotions is a strong element of class conflict, with the officers being shown as isolated and insistent on their status. Julian Rhind-Tutt is good as the despairing Second Lieutenant Ellis Harte, who seems to long for the friendship of his sergeant but to be held back by a feeling that, after all, he’s not quite one of us. And Adrian Lukis, who was so good as Wickham in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, has a very small but chilling role as a Colonel who is keen to use the men as extras in a newsreel, but couldn’t give a damn about any of them as individuals.
If I have one criticism, it is that it is a pity that everything seems so clean and gleaming. Surely there would have been more dirt and shabbiness among soldiers crouched in a trench on the Western Front. There is one scene with a single rat dashing through the trench, but in reality there were loads of them. I also think it unlikely that the soldier who is ridiculed for being fat would have been able to maintain his ample weight on such pitiful rations.
However, despite these minor problems, my feeling is that this is a film which deserves to be better known. And, as its cast become ever more famous, maybe it will be.