Already a popular novel and play, Sebastian Faulks’ “Birdsong” comes to PBS as a two-part, three-hour, stubbornly old-fashioned melodrama. A mixture of tragic romance and World War I epic, the project feels worn on the latter front, perhaps because we’ve had so many looks at “the war to end all wars” of late, from “War Horse” to Masterpiece’s own “Downton Abbey.” That leaves a romance lovingly shot and adroitly told, but somewhat tedious in the buildup, the leads’ appeal notwithstanding. All told, “Birdsong” hums a pretty but not particularly memorable tune.
Whatever people saw in Faulks’ novel is hard to grasp based strictly on this adaptation by writer Abi Morgan and director Philip Martin. The story begins with young Stephen (a fine Eddie Redmayne) taking a job at a French textile factory and instantly falling for its owner’s much-younger spouse, Isabelle (Clemence Poesy). She’s lovely and haunted, and, being her husband’s (Laurent Lafitte) second wife (and caring for two stepchildren), closer in age to the 20-year-old Stephen than to her husband, who is as cruel to her as he is to his striking workers.
The narrative flashes forward a few years, to Stephen serving in World War I, oscillating between the two time periods. The battle scenes are tense, the makeup gruesome in depicting the carnage the war inflicts, but the protagonist’s emotional wounds clearly run much deeper.
And so, in intermittent slow motion, we learn what happened between Stephen and Isabelle, starting with furtive glances that give way to fairly explicit interludes. The whole affair, however, plays like a Harlequin romance novel, and impatience grows during the war portion, waiting for an overall payoff.
None of this can be blamed on the stars, with Redmayne exhibiting a hollow-eyed gaze that convincingly runs over nearly a decade, while Poesy is equally impressive given what an enigma her character is. Her eyes betray unhappiness; if only the movie did a better job detailing why.
Stylistically, Martin also gets a bit carried away with visual devices meant to illustrate Stephen’s longing. No movie, not even a three-hour one, should feature this many gauzy flashbacks of moments we’ve already seen to convey what its hero is remembering.
It’s also difficult to become too invested in Stephen’s comrades (they include Richard Madden of “Game of Thrones”), which is crucial to that half of the tale, since the movie seems hell-bent to pound home the grisly wages of war.
To its credit, Masterpiece features period tales nobody else would, with strong literary underpinnings. Still, in the context of its annual lineup, “Birdsong” is one of those handsome productions that fill out the roster, not a show-stopper.