13 January 2006 | jennifer-319
"and half the seed of Europe, one by one"
The film opens with a stunning tracking shot that reminded me of Tarkovsky; the technique is used again throughout the film to register the horror of war--the mud, the dead, and the shattered, flailing bodies. Most of the film, however, takes place in an insane asylum, far from the battlefield. Yes, the film is quite "talky," but the talk is very good, very intelligent, very thought-provoking. The film focuses on a number of relationships that develop--principally, the respectful but antagonistic "father-son" relationship between the famous war hero and poet Siegfried Sassoon (who has been sent to the insane asylum for penning an anti-war statement) and Dr. Rivers (whose mission is to get Sassoon to recant and back on the front lines). But other relationships are almost equally important--those between Dr. Rivers and an angry soldier named Billy Prior, between Prior and a local "munitionette," and between Sassoon and the man who would emerge, under his tutorship, as perhaps an even greater war poet, Wilfred Owen.
The drama is based on real events, and the performances are quite stunning. Above all, Jonathan Pryce as Dr. Rivers is simply incredible, a man torn between duty and compassion, a doctor on the verge of becoming a patient himself. In a just world, he would have won an Oscar (but hardly anyone, it seems, saw this film on initial release). The handsome James Wilby gives a very fine performance as Sassoon--in fact, I've never seen him in better form. Johnny Lee Miller perfectly embodies the edgy anger, angst, and shame of Billy Prior. And Stuart Bunce brings a remarkably gentle, otherworldly quality to his haunting portrayal of Wilfred Owen. You absolutely believe that this man has a poet's soul; but he finds his voice not by contemplating beauty but by contemplating supreme horror.
There are many scenes from this film I will never forget--particularly, Dr. Rivers' trip to see another doctor cure a patient of being mute by applying electricity directly to his teeth and larynx. This scene is horrifying and, yet, like the rest of the film, restrained, in part because of the way Pryce portrays Rivers' reactions. Another unforgettable scene is the abrupt, shattering ending--but I won't give that away. Suffice it to say that words, especially the words of a great poet, sometimes are more powerful than shocking images.
This is a very intelligent, moving, humane, and important film. What a shame that it has been so overlooked.