It was never going to be easy for Jamie Bell - sudden success in the titular role in Billy Elliot then an unfortunate documentary on BBC1 that showed Bell growing up disgracefully by effectively dismissing his mother, moving out of her house and living instead with director Stephen Daldry. Nothing wrong with not getting on with one's mother when one is a teenage boy, but his advisors clearly reckoned it wouldn't be good for his long term career and the 2002 BAFTA's saw Bell deliver a cringing apology to his mother. As ever, growing up in public can be difficult but in Deathwatch has Bell chosen a film to make it any easier or is this just one more step on the way to the DSS, rehab and a "What ever happened to...?" feature dedicated to him in the years to come?
Deathwatch opens with Y-company in a British trench somewhere in France during the First World War. After being ordered to go over the top, the group of nine soldiers charge against a German trench that is being defended with machine-gun placements. After appearing to fall on the battlefield, they are suddenly transported to an empty field, surrounded by a thick fog where they come upon a German trench in the middle of nowhere. The trench, as well as the surrounding battlefield, is deserted but for three German soldiers who warn the British troops of the death that now surrounds them. Two of the German soldiers are killed to secure the trench with the remaining soldier held captive in the hope of finding out both what happened to his unit and where exactly in France they are.
Soon, as the rain pours into the trench and the British troops remain surrounded by rats, the corpses of German soldiers and a persistently thick fog, they begin to turn violently on one another. As blood begins to flow down the walls of the trench, how many will still be alive to find out what has become of them?
War is often portrayed as hell but few actually portray an unnatural and thereby hellish setting in which to make this point. Of those that attempt to do so, I can only recall Apocalypse Now and Castle Keep that effectively mix such terrible events as occur in war with a dreamlike, if actually nightmarish, flip side to reality.
In limiting almost all of the action to a single trench surrounded by a dense fog that serves to contain the horror within it, Deathwatch tries harder than most to make its point and, thanks to the design of the trench by production designer Aleksandar Denic, is actually successful in doing so. Admittedly, Deathwatch takes a number of images from earlier films, sometimes war-related, sometimes not - it is certainly indebted to Sir Richard Attenborough's Oh, What A Lovely War and the more horrific elements are remarkably similar to Clive Barker's Hellraiser but at least first-time British director Michael J. Bassett, whose background is in Brian Clemens' series Bugs for BBC1, has taste and manages to lift moments from each that remain long in the mind. Of course, Oh, What A Lovely War is a remarkable film and full of memorable scenes but only a few images stand out from Hellraiser and Bassett lifts the lesson in pain and pleasure as delivered by the Cenobites almost as a whole for the punishment delivered to Quinn (Serkis) and Tate (Speer). Thanks mainly to a script that has been adapted for the screen with real verve, you tend to drift towards the feeling that whilst Bassett has delivered a film that is not wholly original, it is akin to a stew of comforting flavours and textures that is easily consumed.
Still, if there are problems with Bassett's film, it's that Deathwatch is hamstrung by a few too many cliches - from Bell's underage conscript to Fox's well-heeled officer, Deathwatch is too reliant on using stock characters to deliver its message. Similarly, Bassett has failed to elevate the story beyond its origins as a genre piece, not realising that simply killing off each of the cast members in an increasingly gory manner does not make a good horror film - this is an approach rather more typical of a slasher sequel than a true successor to a film such as Castle Keep. Finally, as grim as the First World War undoubtedly was, some of the more unpleasant moments are surely quite unintentional, such as seeing Kris Marshal (Nick in BBC1's My Family) masturbating in an isolated part of the trench.
Then again, this is only Bassett's first film and whilst it occasionally shows a rough edge, one shouldn't expect every debut to be Citizen Kane. Given the potential shown here, Bassett can write a good story, is capable of directing a reasonably large cast, carries off the action scenes with vigour and knows how to keep ratcheting up the tension. To compliment Bassett, Deathwatch looks great with a number of well-managed effects that are rarely obvious. Given that this is his feature debut, it would be interesting to see what he manages to do with his next film as, taking Deathwatch as evidence, he is deserving of another chance.
Regarding the cast, the BAFTA award winner Jamie Bell is quite rightly to be applauded for trying to take on a more mature role but, to put it simply, he really isn't very good. Despite his Charlie Shakespeare being the lead character in the film, Bell lacks any on-screen presence and he reminds this reviewer of nothing as much as the hard nut at school who, in the spirit of equality and fairness, is required to come on during the Christmas play and deliver one line, which he does so badly. Similarly, Bell's performance is one that only a mother could be proud of - his lines are flatly delivered without any conviction and whilst the other actors, notably Andy Serkis and Hugh O'Conor, are gritty and believable, Bell's characterisation is tissue-thin. As ludicrous as this may seem to comment on, he even walks badly with so little grace and timing that it brings to mind a hod-carrier who does a little acting in his spare time and has somehow found themselves leading a well-publicised British horror movie. Otherwise, Andy Serkis is most impressive in his role of Quinn, a psychopath for whom war provides an environment in which he can effectively confront each and every party that he dislikes - the Germans, the French, his peers and, the group for which he hates above all others, officers.
Ultimately, Deathwatch will be, for many viewers, either appreciated or slammed in its last fifteen minutes as the story is wound up. For this reviewer, as with Castle Keep, it was intriguing enough to go back and watch the film again but as good as Deathwatch is, it's simply not up there with Sydney Pollack's 1969 existential war movie. Still, to force a second viewing so soon after the first, not counting those viewings to listen to the commentaries, is a recommendation in itself - guarded but still good.
Deathwatch has been anamorphically transferred onto DVD in its original aspect ratio of 2.4:1 and looks great. Cinematographer Hubert Taczanowski and director Bassett really deserve particular mention as it is their work that ensures Deathwatch looks as good as it does, passing on a rich colour scheme to make use of various shades of red and brown to offer a world that looks as though it has all colour drained from it.
Deathwatch has been transferred with a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround soundtrack that is one of the disc's main attractions. Aside from the use of the front speakers to carry the dialogue, each speaker is used to surround the viewer with the ambient sounds of a battlefield including the groan of injured men, gunshots, distant explosions and, probably most unsettling of all, dropping to a dead silence in the trench in which the men spend most of their time. Otherwise, the subwoofer is put to good use during the explosions in the trench as the soldiers seek to close themselves in.
As well as there being only an English soundtrack, the film has only been provided with English subtitles.
Deathwatch is clearly the type of recent film that has been shot with the eventual DVD release in mind, such is the number of commentaries and bonus features assembled for this disc:
Commentary #1 - Michael J. Bassett: Bassett provides a very good commentary, taking the viewer through a good deal of technical information as well as a lot of background on the story. Bassett is a fairly gracious host, as well as an honest one, and provides a good insight into the process of getting a film onto the screen as well as the problems associated with trying to get a film based on the original script into cinemas without a number of scenes being substantially altered.
Commentary #2 - Michael J. Bassett, Jamie Bell, Laurence Fox: This is a much more light-hearted commentary with Bassett's attempts to introduce more technical information drowned out by Fox's more humourous comments regarding the cast and the conditions in which the film was made.
Commentary #3 - Andy Serkis: Starting by failing to introduce himself until he appears on-screen, Serkis provides an off-the-cuff commentary that veers towards the irreverent. Serkis isn't bad but, depending on your interest in the film, could be seen as either entertaining or irrelevant.
Trailer (1m43s, 1.78:1 Anamorphic, DD 5.1 Surround): This plays on the horror aspects of the film very effectively, using a slightly darker look than that of the main feature.
Interviews (15m37s, 1.33:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): Featuring short, individual interviews with Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis and the rest of the cast as well as director Bassett, this bonus feature allows each interviewee to discuss the ensemble cast, their own character/directing, the shoot in Prague and both the background of the film and their hopes for it. All of the interviews were carried out on-set and in costume. There are no chapter stops between interviews.
Behind The Scenes (14m16s, 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): This bonus feature is little more than a collection of candid footage taken from a behind-the-camera view as shooting progressed. There is very little here that will increase one's knowledge of the making of Deathwatch as everything shown here looks snatched as the real shoot happened. There are three chapter stops.
Making-Of Featurette (12m53s, 1.33:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): This is a good making-of recorded by director Bassett on what looks like DV beginning with Bassett sitting at his kitchen table in London the night before flying off to Prague. Bassett has broken the feature into eight chapters based on key periods in the production, such as Pre-Production, the building of the trench and the start of principal photography.
Deleted And Alternate Scenes (2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): There are five deleted scenes in total, each with an introduction presumably written by Bassett and presented as on-screen text:
- The Trench (4m05s)
- Starinski... (52s)
- McNess Gets Nervous (1m20s)
- Jennings... (1m11s)
- ...Death (1m50s)
If he continues in this form, Bassett has a bright future ahead even if he does appear somewhat similar to a student you might have known on an Electronics Engineering degree course. As with the director of Dog Soldiers, Neil Marshall, Bassett, who is another young British writer-director, has turned to horror for his feature debut and as this very recent revival of the British horror film continues, records yet another successful entry. I can't say that I completely understand the film yet - there's a false ending that is still slightly troublesome and to get the most out of it, you'd best be up to date with the teachings of the Catholic church - but overall, Deathwatch works well.
Still, I can't help but think that Bassett simplified what he was trying to do and too often, he resorts to offering precious little horror in exchange for shooting his cast with period weaponry. How much more interesting would Deathwatch have been had Bassett looked to psychological terror instead of physical horrors? On the other hand, that would be a different film. Instead, Deathwatch is certainly a good film is occasionally a little unremarkable but, for most of its running length, is an impressive achievement. Coupled with a DVD that is brimming with extras and obviously assembled with some care, Deathwatch is a strong DVD package for those interested.