Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The Trench (1999)

Novelist and screenwriter William Boyd's directorial debut, The Trench feels like an echo from the past. Not quite the past it is set in however - which is the eve of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 -  but more like the past of a certain kind of celluloid depiction of war from the 40s through to the 70s.

Much of  the success of The Trench is down to the emotional interplay between the platoon as they endure firstly the banal minutiae of trench life and eventually a growing anxiety for the dawn attack as its deadline steadily approaches. It's strong on character and a class identity, the sense of men from all works of life and various regions thrown together to defend the one common bond that is their country. In that regard it really does evoke memories of classic films which focused primarily on the men of war rather than the action of war itself. 

It certainly helps that the cast assembled to depict these characters is quite a strong one; Daniel Craig (a really strong performance as the firm but fair Scouse Sergeant), Paul Nicholls, Julian Rhind-Tutt, James D'Arcy, Danny Dyer (surprisingly restrained) Ben Whishaw and Cillian Murphy, as well as several other 'oh-what's-he-been-in?' faces, all help to make these characters a little more three dimensional than perhaps the script intends or can offer  - or perhaps it's just that we care more when viewing now because these young actors have in the intervening fifteen years achieved some varying degrees of success and acclaim from Hollywood A list to regular TV fixtures. 

That the film is considered stagebound - shot almost entirely on a sound stage and contained within the claustrophobic trenches - often appears as a criticism in many reviews but, on the whole, I'm someone who is perhaps more amenable towards films that are described as 'stagey' than some and I do think it helps create something intimate and contained about the trench setting in a manner that a more realistic on location depiction may not have done.  Equally it continues that produced-in-aspic like approach that the film seems happy to embrace, making it appear not unlike a 1940s war film or an earnest late 60s TV play. Even the film's funereal score feels familiar and certainly tips even the most historically unaware viewer the wink that this will not be a film for happy endings.

The wait before the dawn, and the growing realisation of doom that these characters come to terms with is conveyed palpably by both Boyd's direction and the accomplished cast. The film takes the very firm 'lions led by donkeys' stance towards WWI, a generally conceived wisdom that has only this year in the conflict's centenary started to be reassessed and challenged (when we've a Tory government in power eh? Like they've nothing to gain from a reevaluation that suggests 'our betters' weren't incompetent have they? ) Personally I remain steadfast in my belief that WWI was a barely organised ruthless catastrophe that saw thousands upon thousands mown down before they could even fire a shot themselves. It did not matter how well trained a man was, or how stiff his upper lip could be, the tactics Haigh and our other generals had belonged in a totally different era. That they held an almost Jesuit like belief of the ends justifying the means saw an almost unimaginable 20,000 killed on the first day of the Somme, and a further 40,000 wounded - the single worst day of casualties and deaths in the history of the British army - is the cold hard fact that no amount of revisionism can alter or deny. 

Where perhaps The Trench ultimately fails is deciding to try and depict that fate for our protagonists in a manner not unlike that seen in Peter Weir's 1981 film Gallipoli. Poignant and poetic it may be, but it is also makes the small scale of the previous 90 minutes lost and a little foolish on the big reality of the arena of war.

In the end what perhaps makes The Trench's glory elusive is the fact that we've seen what it has to offer before, in films both better and worse.

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