the nightwatch

the nightwatch

2011
Directed: Richard Laxton
Written: Paula Milne (from the novel by Sarah Waters)

Anna Maxwell Martin is in the canon of actresses I would watch reading the phone book. She imbues even the most staid and proper of English characters with a sense of rebellion, just with a raising of her chin. I first saw her in the BBC's North & South, but she's developed since then into one of the starring lights of British TV, stage and cinema.

So imagine my joy when I saw she'd been cast as Kay Langrish, one of my all-time favourite book heroines. Maxwell Martin imbues Kay with the right spirit of self-sacrifice, passion and sadness I expected. Clare Foy, acclaimed star of 2016's The Queen, also did an earlier turn here as the confused and overwhelmed Helen.

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The Nightwatch, in both novel and the film, is told backwards, starting post-war in 1947, and working it's way back through the London bombardments of 1944, and the scary times of 1941. Some characters appear in all three instalments. Others only in one or two. They are inextricably linked as we first watch what happened, and then go back in time to see what choices the characters made to cause these outcomes.

This was Waters' fourth novel and the first not set in Victorian times. It's once again a rich, moving portrayal of women caught up in turbulent times. As with so many stories that reference the female experience of war, this one paints wartime as the greatest time of their lives. It was a time of freedom, of transformation, of love and of inexplicable sadness and death.

Kay is an ambulance driver in London on The Nightwatch, and despite being frightened and exhausted all the time, she has a deep moral code and a purpose in life. She's surrounded by women at different points in their lives, falling in and out of love, surviving air raids, having affairs with men and women, and generally rushing through their lives with great haste.

I found the reverse structure of the story easier to follow on film than in the novel. The visual cues help to link everything together easily, connections I struggled to make while reading the novel first time round and only caught on a second pass. The film is more straightforward, no-nonsense, which does lose some of the richness and depth of the novel, but may make this more accessible to a wider range of people.

The reason for the reverse story structure is lost in the film though. In the novel, Kay goes to films to while away the hours in her post-war existence. She likes to go halfway through, to experience the end before the beginning, as she believes people's pasts are more interesting than their future. And so it is with this script - where the characters end up isn't half as interesting as where they began, but we don't really know why its told this way.

We end our journey at the story's brightest and most interesting point, as the characters face a future they cannot foresee but we have already lived, so leaving them here is bittersweet.

There are some negatives. We are firmly and squarely in TV movie realm. The sets look a bit cardboard, the bombs are flashes of light, ambulances being driven are against obvious green-screen. It's all a bit fake, despite the actresses pouring their hearts out. We can forgive it all though, and suspend our disbelief, because the story and these women are so engaging.

It's all so very rushed though. The film rips along at a cracking pace, trying to fit an awful lot into 90 minutes. Much like Fingersmith it is sexy and well told, but I find myself longing for the complete exploration we got of characters in Tipping the Velvet, still the shining light of Sarah Waters adaptations. Why can't we just have more time?

Waters continues her reign as the queen of lesbian historical fiction, and I'm beyond thrilled that each time someone has picked up the adaptation mantle, there's been obvious effort to do her brilliant characters the justice they so deserve.

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