The Guardians (4 stars)

The Guardians

Xavier Beauvois's World War I set drama highlights the turmoil and toil of those left behind

A World War I story told through the experiences of those left behind, The Guardians is no less powerful for the fact that it takes place a world away from the front line. In adapting the 1924 novel by Ernest Pérochon, director/co-writer Xavier Beauvois (Of Gods and Men) has captured both the emotional intensity of conflict, and the way in which it forever changes those it touches.

Somewhere in rural France, the women of the Paridier farm toil to keep things ticking over while all of the men, save for the very old and very young, are away at war. Desperate for help, stoic matriarch Hortense (a poised Nathalie Baye) hires local girl Francine (charming newcomer Iris Bry). Francine soon proves her worth, and when soldier son Georges (Cyril Descours) returns on leave he is immediately smitten. Over the next few years, their attraction evolves from letter writing to intimacy, but their bond is forever under threat by the various ravages of war.

The setting is a simple, bucolic idyll, yet cinematographer Caroline Champetier captures the shadowy corners: the quiet contemplation of the fields, empty of men; the pensive camaraderie of the women as they work and eat in silence. Life goes on but is, at the same time, on permanent pause. The moments Francine and Georges snatch together are, by contrast, full of passion and colour, their relationship intensified by the knowledge that the next time she hears his name it may be read out, along with those of many other fallen sons, by the local pastor.

Languorously paced and dramatically subtle, Beauvois needs no tanks or guns to make his point about the impact of war on the men who live through it, and the ripple effect it has on those waiting for them to come home. Plotting the five years between 1915 and 1920, the film observes how the conflict creeps into all aspects of life: the shifting power dynamics as the men come and go, often never to return; the arrival of brash American soldiers which further upsets the balance. Ultimately, and as personified by the relationship between Hortense and Francine – which proves to be the real emotional centre of the film – The Guardians is an exploration of the inevitable erosion of old traditions and the slow emergence of a new way of life.

Selected release from Fri 17 Aug.

The Guardians (Les gardiennes)

  • 4 stars
  • 2017
  • Switzerland/France
  • 2h 18min
  • Directed by: Xavier Beauvois
  • Cast: Nathalie Baye, Laura Smet, Iris Bry
  • UK release: 17 August 2018

In rural France in 1915, Francine (Bry) falls for Georges (Descours), the soldier son of her employer, stoic matriarch Hortense (Baye). Subtle and languorously-paced story of WWI, which captures the emotional intensity of conflict and how it changes all those it touches.

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