Nothing against Laura Linney, but sometimes I feel she's miscast as the mistress of Masterpiece Classic. You need someone dripping with gravitas, some tweedy eminence grise with a plummy English accent to serve up an illustrious heirloom like Birdsong. At the very least, Linney could put on pearls.
This powerfully moving two-part drama is based on Sebastian Faulk's enduringly popular 1993 novel of the same name. It is the saga of Stephen Wraysford (Eddie Redmayne), a young lieutenant in the British army during World War I. A sensitive and artistic type, he is becoming calloused by duty and death, both of which are constantly putting unreasonable claims on him.
Wraysford consoles himself with — or perhaps he is haunted by — idyllic memories from six years before, when he visited the same region in France as a civilian and fell in love with Isabel Azaire (Clemence Poesy), a factory owner's much younger wife. Stolen glances in the parlor turned into torrid embraces anywhere the two could find privacy.
One of the triumphs of Birdsong is that the connection between Stephen and Isabel seems so genuine and ineluctable, not, as is so often the case, like some scriptwriter's recipe for romance.
The mini-series jumps between the two time periods, 1910 and 1916, between beauty and squalor, romance and combat, between languid picnics in lush settings that look like Renoir paintings and lethal encounters in blasted and barren battlegrounds that look as if nothing will ever grow there again.
The book covers a third period, 1978, in which Wraysford's granddaughter in Britain is trying to find out more about her ancestor. But this production, which airs this Sunday night and next Sunday night on WHYY TV12, had quite enough to chew on without making a leap toward the present.
Part of Wraysford's command extends to a group of miners who are tunneling under no-man's-land toward the German trenches with the intention of blowing up the enemy from below. These dirt-smeared subterranean scenes present an even sharper contrast to the sunny days in the French countryside.
The juxtaposition takes a dark turn, however, when it becomes clear that the river our happy band have been punting on in 1910 is the Somme. Now we realize where Lt. Wraysford is headed: July 1, 1916, the single worst day in British military history, when wave after wave of their troops were ordered to charge through barbed wire at blazing German machine guns.
Birdsong is far better than the recent Oscar-nominated feature film War Horse at re-creating the torturous horrors of trench warfare. It's a remarkably convincing accomplishment right up until that climactic battle. It's still not yet feasible for television to create a spectacle on that massive a scale.
In its more civilized moments, the mini gives Downton Abbey a run for its coat of arms for exquisite period evocation.
Even in a marvelous cast (Poesy, Joseph Mawle, Matthew Goode, Marie-Josee Croze, Anthony Andrews), Redmayne stands out. The actor, who starred opposite Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn, looks like a young matinee-idol version of Richard Thomas. His soulful performance here is indelible. Birdsong is an emotional merry-go-round, and Redmayne is reaching for the brass ring the entire ride.
If you like rich, artfully constructed vintage drama, unplug the phone and prepare to be transported. If it's not your cup of tea, this is just another murky, oversteeped pot of Earl Grey.
Ah well, it's Sunday. There's always Celebrity Apprentice.
Television Birdsong 9 p.m. Sunday on WHYY TV12