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Review: The Guardians – “A brilliantly textured and thoughtful drama”

Adapted from Ernest Pérochon’s 1924 novel, The Guardians is a quiet and emotive account of life in rural France during the First World War. It is a war film but only through proxy, with news of the fighting trickling back through newspapers, letters, and short visits from the front.

The drama centres around Hortense (Nathalie Baye), the matriarchal head of her family, and the farm she runs. With her husband Henri (Gilbert Bonneau) too old to help with farm labour and her sons away at the war, Hortense hires Francine (Iris Bry), a young and dependable farmhand who grew up in an orphanage, to assist on the farm.

Hortense’s sons Constant (Nicolas Giraud) and Georges (Cyril Decours) make occasional trips back from the front and tell tales of their experiences. On one of these trips Georges takes a liking to Francine and they begin an affair. Hortense has other thoughts and eyes a marriage between Georges and Marguerite (Mathilde Viseux), who is from a better background.

The pacing and attention to detail reminded me of Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman. The farm’s daily routine is keenly observed to give a feel for the rhythm of life. It is easy to feel a part of the farm and its wider community. Plenty of attention is given to the mechanics of farming. Francine and Hortense can be seen ploughing the fields, scattering the seeds, and processing the grain. On a weekend trip back from the front, Constant describes state of the art tractors that he has seen and says how they could revolutionise the farm.

The changing seasons give a sense of grandeur to everyday proceedings. Trivial activities like buying a bailing machine or hiring a farm hand are given a weight and importance within the wider story. Actions do not just impact a single summer or a harvest but appear to have ramifications that will last as long as the farm. Each performance is subtle and warm, allowing the story to be gripping and engaging despite the seemingly uneventful plot.

Outside the farm similar changes are occurring. The relationship between men and woman and between citizens and the state is beginning to alter, even if it will take 25 years and another world war for these changes to really take effect. Much like in Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon it will take another generation before these changes are really felt, but where Haneke alluded to the horrors of the Second World War, director Xavier Beauvois points towards less definable changes within society. Traditional expectations and customs will continue to confine the characters, but there are signs of movement. More than most war films, The Guardians presents woman as more than a battered photograph or a name on a letter. The story is very much seen through their eyes and from their point of view.

Over the last 25 years Xavier Beauvois has built a commanding reputation within European cinema with films like Don’t Forget You’re Going to Die, The Young Lieutenant, and in particular Of Gods and Men. Like his previous work, The Guardians is a brilliantly textured and thoughtful drama. Few films have ever given such insight into the lives of those left behind.

The Guardians is out in UK cinemas on 17th August 2018.

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