When the Great War takes hold of Europe in 1915, its effects are not only felt on the battlefield, but resonate deeply at home with those left behind as they try to continue with life whilst waiting for their loved ones to return. This is the focus of director Xavier Beauvois’s latest drama The Guardians, which follows a mother (Nathalie Baye) and daughter (Laura Smet) in rural France as they try and maintain the upkeep of the family farm when the men are drafted to fight. In need of additional labour, they hire a young girl (Iris Bry) to assist, who assimilates into the family. At its surface, the feature is a beautiful period drama, but at its core the French auteur has crafted an elegant portrait of everyday life in an era plagued by devastation.
Within the rather sizeable runtime of 138 minutes, there are many facets that contribute to the overall picture. Grief, love, loss, comradery, tensions and fear are all accounted for in this depiction of wartime life. Rather than simply focusing on a solitary subject matter in broad strokes, the filmmaker carefully paints many fine points to create a richly detailed and emotionally complex world.
The period created is not just brought to life through dense characterisation, but through the stunning cinematography that sweeps us into the pauraque, even Romantic, French countryside. In addition to being a visual treat, the tranquil atmosphere allows for both meditative reflection on what’s being presented as well as a stark counterpoint to the bleak reality of the front line. By tactfully skewing the passage of time by blending days into months into years, the editing and pace, too, convey a sense of endless waiting for the end of the conflict so normality can return – if such a thing still exists.
Of course, none of this would be as enthralling without the phenomenal performances by Baye and Bry, who are able to express so much with silence. And when the performance calls for it, both can deliver the knockout blows.
However, while the narrative itself is not the point, the plot does occasionally become overcomplicated and often leaves beats ignored until much later, which results in a somewhat touching but ultimately underwhelming conclusion to an otherwise exceptional and beautiful film.
The Guardians is released in select cinemas on 17th August 2018.
Watch the trailer for The Guardians here: