by Mel Valentin
Directed and written by first-time filmmaker Michael Bassett, "Deathwatch" combines elements from the war genre with a supernatural ghost story, taking as its principal (and unique) setting a semi-abandoned German trench that may or may not be haunted by a malevolent force eager to claim new victims (its purpose unknown and open to speculation). With an emphasis on the horrors of war instead of the supernatural kind, however, "Deathwatch: is unlikely to obtain the approval of fans of either genre. Still, Bassett proves himself a surprisingly polished (and thus, promising) director whose next effort will be one worth anticipating (with the obvious caveat that a stronger script is necessary for Bassett to fulfill his potential as a director).1917, the Western Front, the Great War continues unabated, with the Allies and their opponents, the Central Powers (led by Germany), mired in a hopeless stalemate. A company of British soldiers prepare for a nighttime battle, a suicidal frontal assault up and over their own protected trenches, across a no-man's land covered in shell holes, barbed wires, and the decomposing bodies of friend and foe alike, and straight into the maw of German artillery and machine gun fire. Even as the men, indistinct in the darkness, pray to keep their fears and anxieties in check, most of the men fully understand the slim chance of survival.
"A surprisingly watchable ghost story set in the trenches of WWI."
Charlie Shakespeare (Jamie Bell, Billy Elliot), a green, untested teenager, realizing the danger and his inexperience, becomes paralyzed by fear, but is pulled over the trench wall by the other soldiers in his company. Some men immediately die, others get caught in barbed wire, dying slowly, but painfully. Charlie, called on to help a fallen comrade, can't. Yet he survives, as do nine other men from his company. At daybreak, the men find themselves wandering through a fog-shrouded forest. Numb, the men come across a maze of muddy, rat-infested German trenches, occupied by three German soldiers (the rest have either been killed or fled on foot). One German soldier escapes, another killed instantly, and the third, Friedrich (Torben Liebrecht), becomes their prisoner. The German soldier desperately attempts to warn the British to leave the German line. They don't listen, of course (later, Shakespeare communicates with the German in a shared language, French).
Let's pause for a moment to introduce the other stock, clichéd characters, including the captain, Jennings (Laurence Fox), unprepared and unfit to lead his men, the staunch, tough, but decent Sergeant Tate (Hugo Speer), the compassionate medic, Corporal Doc Fairweather (Matthew Rhys), the wounded, delusional man whose death is evident to everyone except him, Plummer (Mike Downey), the resident Scotsman, McNess (Dean Lennox Kelly), the obligatory sociopath eager to maim and kill, Quinn (Andy Serkis), the believer in a Christian God turned doubter, Bradford (Hugh O'Conor), and several other, even less distinguishable soldiers covered in mud and muck, Starinski (Kris Marshall), Hawkstone (Hans Matheson), and Chevasse (Rúaidhrí Conroy).
Let's return to the storyline. With their position unknown (the compass needle wheels around uncontrollably) and attempts at radio communications with their British compatriots failing (the radio receives sound but doesn't allow the men to send out a distress call), the rain falling constantly turning a miserable situation almost unbearable, the men succumb to fear, suspicion, paranoia, hysteria, and, of course, mental instability. Even as intra-group cohesion falls apart, with the inexperienced captain incapable of enforcing order or the chain of command, someone or something begins to stalk the men. A supernatural force just may haunt the German trench. From there, it's a hop, skip, and a studded bat away from the characters being picked off one by one (or turning on each other). As expected, the characters with the fewest lines exit first, leaving the more distinct characters to discover the truth or die trying.
Deathwatch suffers from several script-related problems. First, the major plot turns are all-too-predictable to anyone with a passing knowledge of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone series. Obviously, director/writer Bassett isn't alone in borrowing ideas from that venerable series. Other filmmakers have too, most notably M. Night Shyamalan (i.e., The Sixth Sense) and Alejandro Amenábar's The Others. Still, it's bound to disappoint some viewers who accurately surmise the major revelation only ten minutes into the running time. Second, viewers might be equally disappointed with the subdued supernatural element. Deathwatch is more about the man-made horrors of war than supernatural ones. Third, Bassett's script and direction fails to overcome a difficulty inherent in war dramas: how to distinguish characters that wear near identical clothing, especially when the characters share common physical traits. Few war films overcome this difficulty, with the exception of war films where the setting reflects a historical reality closer in time to our own, e.g., the Vietnam War, that more easily allows for different ethnic backgrounds and/or body types.Although "Deathwatch" doesn't fully overcome these flaws, it does prove be visually engaging, due primarily to the detailed outdoor set designed by Aleksandar Denic, which used ample amounts of mud and water (not to mention 400 yards of trench lines excavated for the film), shadowy, impressionistic cinematography by Hubert Taczanowski, and the tight, atmospheric direction by Michael Bassett, helming his first feature film. Where the script allows, several actors give solid, credible performances, including Hugo Speer as the compassionate, competent sergeant, Andy Serkis as the sullen sociopath, and Jamie Bell, whose character arc takes him from self-doubt (and cowardice) to the film's anti-war voice.
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originally posted: 10/06/05 17:26:47