Deathwatch

Deathwatch

****

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

It would be too simple to sideline Michael Bassett's movie as an oddity. Simple, but wrong.

What is it? A horror flick? A nastier version of The Trench? A post Private Ryan reminder that war can drive men mad?

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The title sounds like a straight-to-vid B-picture. The only star name is Jamie Bell, the boy who played Billy Elliot. Budget restrictions ensure there are no epic battles. What's left? Ten blokes in a trench somewhere in France during The Great War, going mental.

The performances are pristine. The atmosphere hangs like a dark cloud over the mud drenched, rat infested hole in which they find themselves. Camaraderie is in short supply and sentimentality never sees the light of day. Power struggles defy cliché, in the sense that they are not about who gives orders, but who ignores them.

Characters emerge, some more memorable than others. Capt Jennings (Laurence Fox) is a young, inexperienced officer, as frightened and confused as any of them. The natural leader is the sergeant (Hugo Speer), who knows his place ("Don't call me sir. I work for a living") and gets things done. Quinn (Andy Serkis) loves war. Pathologically violent, he is constantly on the verge of mutiny. Sixteen-year-old Charlie Shakespeare (Bell), the kid, observes from a position of silent witness.

There are others of equal importance, with idiosyncratic defects, who allow fear to poison their reason. They have staggered into this abandoned place in fog, not knowing where they are, or which way is Gerry. Like an adult version of The Lord Of The Flies, they turn on each other. It is, it seems, the only logical outcome. When in hell, do as the devil does.

Bassett's taut script takes risks with credibility. Either you dismiss the nightmare weirdness as offcuts from Hellraiser III, or accept them as hallucinations, brought on by circumstances beyond control.

War may have an honourable rationale, but what happens during it has none. Rupert Brooke wouldn't last two minutes here.

Bassett leaves the ending balanced between the known world and the imagination. At a time when British films are being accused of copycatting Hollywood, Deathwatch defies the critics with daring originality.

Reviewed on: 05 Dec 2002
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Deathwatch packshot
First World War horror movie exposes the hell of trench life and the fear of imminent death.
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Director: Michael J Bassett

Writer: Michael J Bassett

Starring: Jamie Bell, Hugo Speer, Matthew Rhys, Laurence Fox, Andy Serkis, Hugh O'Conor, Hans Matheson, James McAvoy, Kris Marshall

Year: 2002

Runtime: 95 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK/Germany

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If you like this, try:

Dog Soldiers
Jacob's Ladder
The Trench