UK Film Review: The Burying Party

Writers: Richard Weston and Laurence Thompson

Director: Richard Weston

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Of the many tragedies of the First World War, few elicit a greater sense of its futility than the men who died in the days before the Armistice, poet Wilfred Owen was among them. As the UK looks to the centenary commemorations next weekend, Richard Weston’s new film The Burying Partyscreened at the Genesis Cinema on 4 November, the 100thanniversary of Owen’s death, explores how the war affected both the romanticism of the poet’s work and his decision to return to the fighting.

Set during the final year of Wilfred Owen’s life the film cuts together his experience at Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland where, recovering from neurasthenia, he met fellow-patient Siegfried Sassoon and his friend Robert Graves who had a considerable effect on his writing. Meanwhile, Owen decides in order to record the truth in his poems he must return to war and lead his men into battle again.

The subject of The Burying Partywill naturally draw comparisons with Regeneration, Pat Barker’s 1991 novel filmed in 1997 with Stuart Bunce as Wilfred Owen. But Weston’s 60-minute film is quite a different proposition, less concerned with retelling the story of famous poets and the nature of shell-shock, and instead tightly focused on the psychological impact of war on Owen’s poetry.

The two aspects of Owen’s experience run in parallel, drawing out the incommensurate experiences of conflict and recuperation. The natural world is key to the way in which Weston envisages these two scenarios, cutting between the rolling hills and peaceful views close to the hospital, and the violated landscape of the Western Front, where trees are smashed and rivers run with the blood of dead soldiers.

Occasionally Laurence Thompson and Weston’s dialogue becomes a little sticky and some of the language given to Sassoon and Graves in particular, though possibly based on their writing, feels a little stiff, but the film absolutely finds the right balance between disillusion and a duty to carry on fighting that was so prevalent at the time and comes across well in the characterisation.

In his film debut, Matthew Staite reveals the sensitivity and shyness that led to the more romantic elements of Owen’s early work, but also the steel and certainty of mind that made him a ranking officer determined to see the war through. Often Owen is portrayed as the junior partner in the relationship with Sassoon so it is interesting to see an alternative perspective on a poet whose work has lasted just as long.

Sid Phoenix is an emotional Sassoon, more emotionally upset than angry by war than seen in other interpretations, but there are hints of a superciliousness that perhaps in a longer film might offer a chance to explore how Sassoon was simultaneously drawn to and jealous of Owen. Will Burren’s Robert Graves has little time to make his mark apart from a well-staged hallucination on a Scottish hillside, and, in just a few scenes, Joyce Branagh suggest all the love, fear and devastation that being a soldier’s mother entailed.

The Burying Partyis a poetic film, integrating appropriate examples of Owen’s work, with the visual beauty of Meurig Marshall’s cinematography, uniting these two opposing experiences with a consistent use of light and colour. As Weston explained at the Q&A which accompanied the screening, the visual effect is strongly influenced by First World War artists, and if you want to look for it you can see compositions by John Singer Sargent and Stanley Spencer among others.

Although it leaves the viewer to piece together the various timelines, there is something of the Merchant Ivory film about Weston’s approach, a richness of the visual and emotional experience that builds well. Inevitably as four years of commemoration comes to a close national attention will move on from the First World War, but as the activities fall as silent as the guns did a hundred years ago, Owen’s poetry will remain, and The Burying Partyshows us why he remains one of the most important figures in Great War history.

Release Date: 4 November 2018

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