The fourth novel by popular Welsh author Sarah Waters to be adapted for U.K. broadcast, “The Night Watch” maintains its predecessors’ high standard by successfully translating an even trickier narrative than usual, told in three chronologically reversed segments. Complex tale set in London during and after WWII expands Waters’ usual focus on doomed lesbian romance to encompass gay male and straight female protagonists, all swept along by tides of fate and prejudice against an already tumultous historical backdrop. Busy, satisfying if mostly downbeat drama should easily score select broadcast and VOD deals offshore.
Principal characters are introduced in 1947, as Britain rebuilds itself from the war’s devastation. Braving the disdain and insults of strangers for her mannish appearance, heiress Kay (Anna Maxwell Martin) seems to be masochistically punishing herself with social isolation after some as-yet-murky past disappointment. Helen (Claire Foy) and younger lover Julia (Anna Wilson-Jones) are finding cohabitation increasingly tense due to infidelities both past and present. Helen’s co-worker Viv (Jodie Whittaker) is carrying on a long-term affair with married Reggie (Liam Garrigan) and regularly visits her younger brother, Duncan (Harry Treadaway), who’s been estranged from their father since serving a prison sentence.
Second seg is set three years earlier, with Duncan in jail. There, he meets two men who will play a role in his future and mourns a third lost under tragic circumstances. Reggie gets paramour Viv pregnant, though with a family of his own, he’s in no position to do the right thing. A stray act of kindness ties Viv to Kay, who’s in her element as a fearless ambulance worker responding to air-raid emergencies. A love triangle involving Kay, Julia and Helen will soon cause all three grief, however.
The roots of all these relationships are finally revealed in the last full section, set in 1941. A brief back-to-the-future coda suggests our beleaguered characters may yet have a chance of moving on to hopefully better pastures.
Cramming an enormous wealth of incident into 90 minutes during which little goes right for the numerous protagonists, helmer Richard Laxton and scenarist Paula Milne (both Brit tube veterans) risk creating a monotonous dirge of miserabilism. But the propulsion of Waters’ narrative strands, an excellent cast and expert production values keep “The Night Watch” engrossing throughout. Nina Humphreys’ keening string-based score hits just the right note of urgent melancholy.