Friday August 14, 1998
"Regeneration" is as bleak as it is thoughtful, a traditional-style Scottish-British-Canadian production with polished dialogue and superlative performances. It should please fans of the well-made British film, but you could wish that director Gillies Mackinnon and writer Allan Scott, in adapting Pat Barker's trilogy of novels, could have found ways to enliven all that's on their minds--war, class, snobbery, friendship, redemption and, eventually, regeneration--and explored it in less theatrical fashion.
Their handsome film is nothing, however, if not ambitious in scope and depth, and it is blessed with a towering, complex portrayal by Jonathan Pryce, in what surely must be one of the most challenging roles of his varied career. He is cast as Dr. William Rivers, a pioneering psychiatrist, who during World War I ran Craiglockart, a military mental hospital housed in a Victorian castle outside Glasgow.
Rivers, who was charged with curing soldiers of shellshock so that they might return to battle, is a patriotic yet highly empathetic man whose demanding work is beginning to exact its toll. He's already near the limits of his resources when he's handed a hot potato: poet Siegfried Sassoon (James Wilby, as fine as he was in "Maurice"), who has demonstrated incredible bravery and remarkable leadership in battle but who has now spoken out against the war. (That Sassoon is gay is mentioned only obliquely by Rivers; so much for the controversy over gays in the military.) Not a pacifist, Sassoon believes that, after three years, the war, which started out for the British as a necessary defense, is being prolonged at a terrible cost in lives.
Sassoon's friend Robert Graves (Dougray Scott) has managed to persuade his fellow poet to choose Craiglockart over certain court-martial. A forthright man, Rivers tells Sassoon he does not believe he's mad but reminds him that it's his job to persuade him to return to the battlefield. (What Rivers above all has in mind is to stretch out Sassoon's stay until the war is over.)
Upon his arrival, the brilliant, patrician Sassoon, who has lost a cherished friend in battle, is in a mood for martyrdom, but Rivers commences by bringing his formidable powers of persuasion to bear upon him to try to get the poet to see himself in as large a moral, philosophical and social context as possible.
Indeed, "Regeneration," which has been called a cerebral "Saving Private Ryan," includes terrible scenes of warfare, which haunt not only Sassoon but others at Craiglockart. The film's central, presumably fictional, figure, however, Jonny Lee Miller's young Billy Prior, not only has blanked all memories of battle but has also become mute.
As a humble man who has worked his way up the ranks, Billy is enraged at the naivete and folly of Britain's upper-class leadership in battle, but he is otherwise a generic figure, although certainly played effectively by Miller, best known for his role as Sick Boy in "Trainspotting." What the picture needs more of is Sassoon and his friendship with poet Wilfred Owen (Stuart Bunce), whom Sassoon inspired to write a series of poems considered to be the finest to emerge from World War I.
As the film--and the war itself--progresses--Pryce does a heroic job of expressing with subtlety Rivers' increasing sense of inner pressure and conflict. It comes to a head in a dramatic sequence in which a doctor (John Neville) applies a brutal but effective electrical shock treatment to force mute soldiers to speak again. The impressed but even more appalled Rivers sees the treatment as reducing men to fighting machines.
Certainly, "Regeneration" is an intelligent, well-produced picture, but one that would have gained immeasurably from more dynamic and personal direction.
Regeneration, 1998. R for sexuality, and for language and some war-related images. An Alliance Communications presentation of a Rafford Films Limited/Norstar Entertainment/BBC Films/Scottish Arts Council Lottery Fund co-production. Director Gillies Mackinnon. Producers Allan Scott, Peter R. Simpson. Executive producers Saskia Sutton, Mark Shivas. Screenplay by Scott; from the novels by Pat Barker. Cinematographer Glen Macpherson. Editor Pia Di Ciaula.. Costumes Kate Carin. Music Mychael Danna. Production designer Andy Harris. Art director John Frankish. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes. Jonathan Pryce as Dr. William Rivers. James Wilby as Siegfried Sassoon. Jonny Lee Miller as Billy Prior. Stuart Bunce as Wilfred Owen.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun