Director: Amit Gupta
review by Jim Steel
Turning a book into a film will mean a lot of things. Compromise, obviously, since they are two totally different creatures. Contraction, since
the average book lasts longer than the average film. And there is also the collapse of the probability wave into an actuality since there is no
longer any fuzziness about the look of things. Curiously, a certain distance can also creep in since we can no longer sit inside the heads of
Owen Sheers' novel was well received when it came out in 2007 but, since I haven't read it, I cannot judge how faithful to it this film is. However,
since Sheers has co-written the screenplay with the director we must assume that his intentions for the novel have remained reasonably intact. What
we have here is an excellent film, but what we are presented with at the beginning will trip up anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the Second
World War. A single sentence announces that, after the failure of the D-Day landings, the Germans counterattacked and invaded Britain.
This is quite clearly a counterfactual history of the 'Hitler victorious' variety, of which there is a long prose tradition in the science fiction
world, and cinema has already seen a good example in the adaptation of Robert Harris' Fatherland. A German victory is not the problem; they
came very close on several occasions and only their stunningly incompetent leaders prevented it. A German victory after D-Day is highly unlikely
for lots of reasons, though.
For a start, 90 percent of the German armed forces were on the eastern front trying to prevent the Red Army from rolling into Eastern Europe. The
western allies were also halfway up Italy, grinding their way towards Austria. And there was also a massive bombing campaign that could easily have
been diverted from the Ruhr towards any invasion fleet. And so on. Obviously there was more going on the just the failure of D-Day. Has America
stayed out of the war? Has the Soviet Union collapsed? Possibly... but it is impossible to be fully engaged while one is trying to rationalise the
events that might make the film work. Maybe things are clearer in the novel, but that is no excuse.
The film proper starts with Sarah (Andrea Riseborough) being kissed goodbye by her husband, George (Iwan Rheon) as she sleeps. From then on we only
see his happy, open face in her memories for he has left with most of the rest of the men in this remote Welsh valley to fight in the resistance.
There is an excellent chance that some or all of them are now dead, a possibility that increases as the winter months pass.
A small group of German soldiers enter the valley to be greeted in sullen silence by the women. The soldiers, led by the stereotypically fleshy-lipped
and grey-eyed Albrecht (Tom Wlaschiha), have come to look for a map and will stay as long as necessary. These are soldiers of the Reich; we see flashbacks
of them executing partisans on the way, and, later in the film, they have no compunction over executing a prisoner of war. But Albrecht is sick of
war; his German soldiers look like they have been living in their uniforms for a long time (some of them are wearing DPM camouflage that was only ever
issued to the SS, and we can only assume that they've 'borrowed' this gear along the way. Either that or this is the nicest bunch of SS men in cinema
We hear of the fall of London and then, later, that there is still fighting going on there, and we hear that Birmingham and Manchester are under
siege. The mere thought of those great cities being turned into Stalingrad and Leningrad is enough to appal us. The longer it takes to find this
map the better. Unfortunately the map is found early on in a cave and it then becomes clear why this map is so important: it is the Mappa Mundi,
an important and valuable relic that is destined as loot for Berlin.
Albrecht decides not to tell anyone of it and they settle into the valley for the duration of the winter. Soon they abandon their uniforms and start
to help the women with their farms. If Sarah's pristine marble skin is any guide then she rarely even visited the garden and will need all the help
she can get. The women have little choice other than to accept the help of the soldiers. Is this collaboration? After all, they are giving nothing
in return. And, unknown to the women (at least initially), the soldiers are not aiding the German war effort. Gradually both sides are drawn into
each other's culpability.
Albrecht destroys incoming and outgoing mail, trying to keep the valley's status secret while at the same time trying to build a relationship with
Sarah. Obviously it is not a stable situation and it becomes apparent, through Gupta's masterful and understated direction, that he is deluding himself
as much as he is the others. It is impossible to halt the flow of time.
It's a beautifully-cast film. Michael Sheen (perfect with dapper moustache) plays a Special Operations operative called 'Tommy Atkins' (the codename
for all British soldiers in the First World War) who is first seen indoctrinating a teenager in the necessity of punishing collaboration in a way
that suggests the difficulty of the position while still convincing in theory. But in practice..? Against real people..?
This is not an action movie and will not press the same buttons as Kelly's Heroes, for example, so consider yourself warned. It's also obviously
compressed from the novel as can been seen from a minor plot thread, with Kimberly Nixon as a farmer's daughter, that is just dropped halfway through.
But as an exploration of character and morality it has a great deal to offer.