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. Continue reading