The Night Watch, BBC Two | TV reviews, news & interviews
The Night Watch, BBC Two
Efficient adaptation misses the crashing chords of romantic Rachmaninov
Sarah Waters’s highly praised novels have marched from the page to the screen with regimental regularity and no apparent sacrifice in quality. Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, with their big Victorian brushstrokes, were built for television no less than Dickens is. With The Night Watch, adapted last night, her subject was still the love that dare not speak its name. But two things were different. This time Waters’s sweeping saga was compressed into a single film. And it was brought forward in time to the Blitz, when a modern lady’s drawers could be whipped off in a flash.
As usual with popular quality fiction, those with a strong loyalty to the original will be posting their objections in the comments box. But this was an efficient filleting by Paula Milne. All the important marks were hit: the terror of discovery for young gay men and women, somewhat alleviated by wartime when everyone was too busy licking Hitler to keep an eye on the same-sex fumblings among pert young flatsharers. Being squeezed into 90 minutes, some of the more sinuous and serpentine coils of Waters’s plotting no doubt had to be sacrificed in the interests of narrative drive. But something of the structural ambition was preserved as, like Harold Pinter’s portrayal of a love triangle in Betrayal, the story came by its revelations of motive by travelling backwards in time, in this case from 1947 via 1944 and thence to 1941.
Maxwell Martin was cheekily got up to look like her character's creator
Thus in the first section we witnessed the relationship of pretty, shy Helen (Claire Foy) and her more vampish lover Julia (Anna Wilson-Jones) run aground on Helen’s jealousy while Kay (Anna Maxwell Martin) mooched mannishly about London with a very long face, the explanation for which was found in 1944. Director Richard Laxton's clever device for spooling back in time was to rifle at high speed through snapshots of the scenes about to unfurl. Thus three years earlier, now in the midst of the ferocious rain of V1s and V2s, we watched Helen falling for Julia, who happened to be the ex of her current lover Kay, an ambulance worker we in due course saw rescuing Helen from the rubble in the Blitz in 1941and so igniting their doomed romance. Meanwhile, two parallel stories told of troubled siblings. Viv (Jodie Whittaker, pictured below) was seduced into an affair with a married soldier which led to a highly gruesome abortion and slow romantic disillusionment, while her brother Duncan (Harry Treadaway), a homosexual banged up in the Scrubs after his lover committed suicide, grappled with the shame of his homosexuality in a prison heaving with poufs and conchies.
In a drama about forbidden love and loss in buttoned-down wartime Blighty, you slightly missed the swoops and crashes of romance such as Rachmaninov brought to Brief Encounter. What we saw of London was suitably clad in gloomy greys and browns but for the pair of racy red pyjamas gifted by Kay to Helen (and of course the bits and pieces of female flesh obligatorily/obligingly found in Waters adaptations). As ever with a drama which tried to fill a large canvas, the television budget did its asphyxiating work. Bombarded London burned and smoked modestly. Kay hunted for the body of Helen, presumed buried at the bottom of a heap of miraculously undamaged chairs (but in fact out trysting with Julia). Much of the artistry was in the acting – Maxwell Martin, yes, cheekily got up to look like her character's creator, but also Whittaker and Foy as women looking for love in the wrong places. In the film’s most novelistic still, Treadaway lay in his prison bunk as an arm dropped down limply from above, an ambiguous temptation to play.
“Hitler would have you lot strung up by your tits,” one ambulance worker advised Kay, perhaps because she’d thumped him three years earlier. So long as his bombs fell on London, littering the streets with the body parts of children, Waters’s ladies were fetchingly free to play the field. Kay’s optimism that victory would bring not just peace but also equal rights for women was, of course, not borne out. In the script’s hasty final return to 1947 to tie up a bow or two, it was two heterosexual characters who found each other and the promise of happiness, while the gay men and women were consigned by the forces of history, and the resumption of the natural order, to roam once more in the shadows, awaiting their turn. As Duncan was eyed up on a train while Helen was expelled from Julia's life and Kay unpacked boxes in her flat alone, the climactic suggestion was that the future would be a lot easier for the boys than the girls.
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