The Night Watch: Nothing’s fair in love and war

The BBC continues its season of high quality drama with The Night Watch – an adaptation of Sarah Waters’ excellent novel set during and after the Second World War.

I approached this with both extreme excitement (as anybody within five miles of my twitter account will be more than aware. Apologies – I have had a sit down now) and extreme trepidation. I love this book so much. It seemed in some ways to mirror my Winter of Discontent where it felt like I was fighting my own war against Law School in Guildford and all that resided in it. Whilst dwelling on such a time could not be any further removed from the point of this article, the day I strode into a canteen full of Country Life- considering Blazer Boys and Tatler-toting Pashmina Girls in a Dennis the Menace Jumper, filthy plumber jeans and black DM boots carrying a hardback of Britain’s most prominent and proud lesbian author is not something I’ll forget in a hurry.

So you can understand my concern. Plus, it is a 500 page epic set in wartime that follows a narrative backwards through time during 1947, 1944 and 1941 respectively. Catherine Cookson, it is not. What on earth possessed the BBC to tackle it in 90 minutes? Could it ever do this masterpiece justice?

Well, there is much to recommend The Night Watch as a film on its own terms. Firstly, it looks absolutely terrific. For once the expression “TV Film” is truly warranted, its scale genuinely matching that of the book. It really puts across the point that, for all the danger, destruction and death, wartime Londonwas strangely alive.London in 1947 is battered, grey, exhausted. It is alive but not quite awake, staggering around in a daze. The central character, Kay (Anna Maxwell Martin), is heartbroken not just over love but also over life itself – the bold, feminist future offered by wartime life has faded to drab wash of having her suit stared at in shops and on streets.

The stunning look and feel of the film is helped greatly by spectacular cinematography. For all the tragic splendour of the grand bombsite scenes, tiny details add so much. A character applies her lipstick whilst peering into a shop window. Another gently takes a pencil from behind the ear of his estranged friend to write his address down, a gesture that expresses more than hours of sub-EastEnders dialogue.

Anna Maxwell Martin as Kay - in line for BAFTA No. 3, I should think.

The other big draw is the outstanding cast. When I first saw the cast list, I felt all were perfectly cast apart from Kay, the mannish lead. Anna Maxwell Martin is doubtless one of the finest actors of her generation. But would she be, put simply, butch enough? I don’t know why I worried – she is the pick of the bunch here. My notes upon her entrance read “AMM – stands right, looks grand.” An astonishing performance – every time she swallows her emotions, I swallow with her. And whilst it would usually be ungallant to dwell on a nude scene, her walking entirely naked across a bedroom whilst shaking with trauma from having carried the torso of a child is possibly the bravest piece of acting I have seen in some time.

She is well-supported by terrific performances from the rest of the cast, particularly Anna Wilson-Jones as the stunning but cold Julia. Whilst it is true that she specializes in this sort of role (Sugar Rush, Afterlife etc), I always wonder why we haven’t seen more of this actress. It also speaks volumes that the film relegates actors of the quality of Kenneth Cranham (excellent as a creepy ex-Warden who has Duncan, Harry Treadaway, under his control) and Claudie Blakely to minor roles and doesn’t remotely suffer for it.

The film also captures the full-blooded – and indeed full-bloodied- nature of the book. During the 1944 section of the film, everything is turned up to 11. The sex scenes are so passionate as to teeter on violence, although frankly I could have lived without the prison scene. In contrast, the scene involving Viv (a nicely nuanced performance by Jodie Whittaker) shows the outcome of sex at its most alarming. Life is for living and lived several lifetimes over. Life in 1947 has begun again but is strangely stillborn, as the characters are grasping the past and failing to even grasp a glimmer, instead having to grasp only that nothing is is in fact fair in love and war. The film never fails to be involving even at its most minor events – Claire Foy as Helen simply spilling a cup of tea makes me gasp as if my front room window has just been broken.

However, the film badly lets itself down by going back to 1947 and COMPLETELY CHANGING THE ENDING. Sorry to capitalize this but I still can’t quite believe that this happened and that Sarah Waters is ok with this. This is compounded by the BBC’s volte-face from making two 90-minute films to just one, which Waters has expressed disappointment at. Rightly so, in my opinion – it could have beautifully built the tension and been an absolute masterpiece. In fact, it’s a bit Is That All There Is? The grafted-on, pat extending doesn’t help this. Add this to the fact that this has been sitting on the shelf unscheduled and apparently unloved for months on end and it doesn’t look like the BBC had much hope for this.

Which is a real shame as, despite my criticisms, it’s still very, very good indeed.

Posted by Velocity Girl


Filed under Drama

3 responses to “The Night Watch: Nothing’s fair in love and war

  1. The Lovely Nicola

    Started to watch The Night Watch and i was enjoying the set and the details of each scene more than the actual story itself which i found quite slow to get moving…I had to turn off but i have promised myself i will watch it later in the week, ive even pressed the Keep button on Sky player to avoid it being mistakenly deleted by members of the household! Having read your review i am much more tempted to read the book though.

  2. BigBossyBoots

    A wonderful and moving film. I watched this primarily because of the cast, having given up on Sarah Waters many years ago, despite being a lesbian myself… (I got halfway through the beautifully written, but to me, ultimately shallow and stereotypical ‘Tipping the Velvet’ before throwing it at the wall in frustration.) However, ‘The Night Watch’ adaptation was subtle and nuanced, horribly evocative of life disrupted by war, and also presenting lesbians, gays and straights as complex and ambivalent individuals. Perhaps I’ll give Sarah Waters another go.

  3. Velocity Girl

    TLN – Re-reading my review and BBB’s excellent comment, I wonder if I was perhaps a bit hard on the film. It was really very good in its own right (or should that be write…). It’s just hard when you;ve enjoyed the book so much! I cannot recommend the book highly enough. The telly adaptation did improve as it moved into 1944 though.

    BBB – As a gay person, I found The Night Watch to be by far the most moving of all of Sarah Waters’ books and certainly her best depiction of gay life to date. The book goes into more detail than the film and is even more nuanced. A good starting point, although Fingersmith is also excellent.