A complex, brooding drama about two British poets who find reprieve from war in a hospital for the mentally ill, “Regeneration” is a dignified but uninvolving adaptation of the acclaimed 1991 novel by Booker Prize-winning author Pat Barker. Lacking the energy of director Gillies MacKinnon’s “Small Faces” and the solid storytelling of his more recent “Trojan Eddie,” this slow-moving meditation on war and madness will require considerable critical support for it to survive on the theatrical battlefield.
Set in Scotland in 1917, near the end of World War I, the story begins with leading army psychiatrist Dr. William Rivers (Jonathan Pryce) being assigned to treat eminent poet and decorated soldier Siegfried Sassoon (James Wilby) after he publishes an article denouncing the war’s transformation from defense to aggression.
Rivers, whose own mental stability is increasingly jeopardized by ethical questions regarding his work, confirms Sassoon’s sanity. But he comes under political pressure to persuade the poet to retract his protest, which has been explained away as the rantings of temporary madness. If he stands by his words, Sassoon risks being tried for treason.
Also being treated by Rivers at Craiglockhart Hospital in the Scottish countryside is budding war poet Wilfred Owen (Stuart Bunce), whose lack of confidence in his writing is slowly altered by Sassoon’s encouragement, and Billy Prior (Jonny Lee Miller), a young, working-class officer turned mute and amnesiac by the horrors he has witnessed and his own weakness in reacting against them.
The main problem with Allan Scott’s contemplative script is its lack of a dramatic center. The narrative shares its attentions equally among Rivers’ conflicts over the sometimes bar-baric or feebleminded rehabilitation methods used by his colleagues; Sassoon’s artistic nurturing of Owen as he wrestles with his own dilemma; and Prior’s progress from shell-shocked war casualty to patriotic soldier, pursuing a rather half-baked romance with a local munitions-factory worker (Tanya Allen) along the way.
The drama displays intelligence and integrity in its probing of questions of cowardice, duty, treason, class and the wisdom of regenerating emotionally damaged men merely to re-expose them to the cause of their ills. But despite controlled, intense work from the fine group of actors — Bunce and Miller in particular — none of the major plot strands is given sufficient weight to provide a concrete dramatic hook or a satisfyingly resonant outcome.
The production’s visual flatness is especially problematic in scenes on the battlefields and in the trenches, which are conjured up during therapy and staged without the necessary scope to give them any real impact. As a result, they undermine the potency of both the war as a catalyst and the more character-driven drama shaped by it.