VIR­GIN SOL­DIER

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blundell

‘ICOULD not look on Death, which be­ing known, / Men led me to him, blind­fold and alone,’’ wrote Rud­yard Ki­pling. The words are in­scribed on a steel plaque on a mon­u­ment five miles from Ypres in the vil­lage of Poperinge. It’s ded­i­cated to dead soldiers from the so-called Great War ex­e­cuted by their own side for re­fus­ing to fight, or who fled the hor­rors of the front.

As the war ap­proaches its 100th an­niver­sary, the words and the mon­u­ment — a pole, the height of a man, the kind de­sert­ers and the muti­nous were tied to and shot by fir­ing squad — sug­gest the change in our at­ti­tude to­wards that ter­ri­ble con­flict. In­creas­ingly we choose to stress the in­hu­man­ity of the war rather than fo­cus on the tri­umph of the vic­tors.

And while more than 3300 Aus­tralian soldiers were court-mar­tialled for de­ser­tion — es­ti­mates sug­gest 10 times as many were ‘‘ adrift’’ at any given time — only 120 Aus­tralians were sen­tenced to death. De­spite pres­sure from the Bri­tish high com­mand, the Aus­tralian govern­ment re­fused to im­pose the death penalty on its vol­un­teer soldiers. It would take 80 years, though, for the Bri­tish and New Zealand gov­ern­ments to par­don their young soldiers.

This is the back­ground to Rachel Ward’s fine ABC tele­movie An Ac­ci­den­tal Sol­dier, which too, like that wooden French pole that once sup­ported the twin­ing vines of hops, is a me­mo­rial that em­pha­sises the pity of war rather than its no­bil­ity.

My grand­fa­ther was in the trenches at Ypres and landed twice at Gal­lipoli and he never spoke of hero­ism or great deeds. It was never about na­tion­al­ism for him but only about grief, and we still need to be re­minded of that. Our

Rachel Ward’s World War I tele­movie is a tes­ta­ment to the pity of that ter­ri­ble con­flict

wars are not only about self-sac­ri­fice and mate­ship but also fear, folly and ter­ri­ble frailty. And we have to un­der­stand them as a re­al­ity and not merely as national myth or a stereo­typed piece of news re­port­ing.

Ward’s story is about a man snatched from the or­di­nary and forced to define him­self in ways he could never have imag­ined. The fine, tightly struc­tured, al­most minimalist script from Blake Ayshford ( Love My Way, The Straits) was adapted from the novel Silent Parts by Aus­tralian writer John Char­alam­bous for pro­duc­ers Kylie du Fresne of Gold­post Pic­tures and Sue Tay­lor from Tay­lor Me­dia. The novel was de­scribed by re­viewer Peter Pierce as one of the most poignant and un­usual re­flec­tions on war and re­mem­brance. And Ayshford, in tak­ing the colo­nial part of the novel, which in­ter­weaves events from 1968 and fad­ing mem­o­ries of the war with events from 1918, also pro­vides a hushed story of an un­likely love. Adap­ta­tions into film are dif­fi­cult to man­age. But Ayshford and his sym­path- etic di­rec­tor have cre­ated some­thing quite sin­gu­lar and filmi­cally ex­cit­ing.

Harry Lam­bert (Dan Spielman), a shy 35-year-old baker work­ing in a ru­ral Aus­tralian town, is com­pelled by feel­ings of hos­til­ity and shame from within his own com­mu­nity to en­list in the spring of 1918 as Ger­many seems poised to win the war. The word ‘‘ shirker’’ haunts him and he joins the ser­vice corps as a baker work­ing be­hind the lines on the Western Front in France. The bak­ers are cal­lously thrown on to the front line — a long slow­mo­tion se­quence re­called by Lam­bert in shocked flash­backs — and he stum­bles out of the trenches in flight from the hor­ror.

He finds him­self in an un­fa­mil­iar coun­try­side that is swarm­ing with gen­darmes look­ing for de­sert­ers and is soon on the run, com­pas­sion­ately res­cued by a stoic farm wife, Colombe Ja­co­tot (Marie Bunel). Her hus­band has de­serted her, her only son is an­other ca­su­alty of the war, and she works in a lo­cal mu­ni­tions fac­tory assem­bly line. A love slowly de­vel­ops be­tween the shy baker who has never had a sweet­heart and the older woman con­vinced all joy and beauty has left her life. It’s a love that is nei­ther fore­seen nor imag­ined, full of pas­sion, sad­ness and re­gret, that even­tu­ally be­comes an un­likely com­mit­ment.

There is a luminous sim­plic­ity in Ward’s treat­ment of the re­la­tion­ship as it qui­etly de­vel­ops, shot largely in in­ter­cut­ting close-ups; it’s an art­ful sim­plic­ity, re­ally, that hides the art. Un­der her im­pres­sive di­rec­tion, both ac­tors are able to con­vey think­ing on cam­era, com­mu­ni­cate the ef­fort or ex­cite­ment of it, and make it ex­hil­a­rat­ing to watch. This is not an easy thing to do and you al­most sense Ward just off cam­era ob­serv­ing, nod­ding along to the mo­ments as they emerge, en­cour­ag­ing and em­pathis­ing. Few words are needed to con­vey the baker’s cour­te­ous mod­esty and the farm wife’s ex­quis­ite fas­tid­i­ous­ness. At times Ward seems to chan­nel the tone of early Truf­faut, sweet and acer­bic, a kind of in­sin­u­at­ing lyri­cism that pulls you into the un­fold­ing story.

Film critic John Si­mon once re­marked that one of the pre­req­ui­sites for a well-made film is tex­ture, ‘‘ a cer­tain den­sity in the re­la­tions among the char­ac­ters, a cer­tain so­lid­ity of set­ting, a to­pog­ra­phy you can feel in the soles of your feet’’. Ward nails this: her small town hangs to­gether; you can sense how peo­ple move around, get from place to place; and Colombe’s house is lived-in, full of mem­o­ries.

Ward gets the tex­ture of war-torn France right, which can’t have been an easy thing as An Ac­ci­den­tal Sol­dier was in fact shot about an hour out­side Perth. Pro­duc­tion de­signer Clay­ton Jauncey dis­cov­ered the nu­mer­ous vine­yards and val­leys that were pop­u­lated by early set­tlers de­ter­mined to cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment that re­minded them of Europe.

A gar­den in Union Road, Carmel (‘‘gar­den of God’’ in He­brew), with its an­tique rose gar­den, pear trees and duck pond, pro­vides the pic­turesque back­drop to the drama. And Jauncey, af­ter con­struct­ing the French farm­house, barn and out­build­ings, has re-cre­ated the look and feel of ex­te­ri­ors and in­te­ri­ors of the place and time. It’s a film that ex­udes at­mos­phere with­out ever ap­pear­ing smug about it, so tight is Ward’s con­trol over tex­ture.

Spielman is con­vinc­ing and af­fect­ing, man­ag­ing to shrink him­self into the dis­af­fected, slightly dazed but in­tel­li­gent every­man, some­how so vul­ner­a­ble that’s he’s a con­vinc­ing sex­ual in­no­cent at the age of 35. The scene where Colombe dis­cov­ers this is delightful, touch­ing and oddly amus­ing as she del­i­cately,

Dan Spielman and Marie Bunel in An Ac­ci­den­tal Sol­dier

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