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Regeneration, Britain 1997

Posted by keith1942 on March 19, 2015

Regen 1

I revisited this recently as part of the W.W.I: Through the Lens series at the Hyde Park Picture House. The film was screened in an old but visually good quality print. The soundtrack was occasionally muffled from wear and tear, but overall it was a great experience. The Hyde Park obtained the print with some assistance from Rafford Films, the original Production Company: at a time when projection and programming seems to be a dying art in cinema it is good to see an exhibitor giving this care and attention to a film. And it is a film that deserves such treatment. As you might expect in an UK period drama the acting and characterisations are excellent. Adrian Scot has provided a fine adaptation of the novel by Pat Barker: I have not read the book but I suspect that Harris has also changed the emphasis somewhat. The cinematography by Glen MacPherson is very fine, and together with Production Designer Andy Harris he has created really convincing images of the World War I frontline. The editing appears seamless, but it has certain unexpected cuts, which are sharply implemented. There is a lot of music, as you might expect, by Mychael Danna, but it works well and is in keeping with the treatment.  Director Gillies MacKinnon has done an excellent job of bringing the contributions of this team together. The film is a co-production between the UK [including Scottish agencies] and Canada: it would seem that the story has some connection with North America.

In an intelligent piece of programming the main feature was proceeded by some film footage from World War I. This was a video copy of footage shot at two hospitals treating mental disorders in troops afflicted by the trench warfare. The film was provided by the Welcome Trust Library and I would think it never received public exhibition at the time, late 1917 and 1918. The film presented a series of soldiers who suffered from some sort of neuroses bought on by the horrors of the warfare. The film concentrated on showing the success of the hospital treatments: some of the recoveries from severe physical disabilities bought on by trauma were remarkable. There was less coverage of the treatment, which seemed to consist of physiotherapy and hypnotic suggestion. The Picture House staff selected the Third Symphony of Henryk Górecki as an accompaniment: this worked very well.

This archive material fitted very well with the prime focus in Regeneration, the treatment of officers suffering mental traumas after service in the frontline. Reviews of the film on release picked up on the depiction of the relationship between two famous World War I poets, Siegfried Sassoon (James Wilby) and Wilfred Owen (Stuart Bunce), in the film. But the prime focus is Doctor William Rivers (Jonathan Pryce) and his relationship with his patients, especially Sassoon. There are two other key characters, Billy Prior (Johnny Lee Miller) and Burns (Rupert Proctor). Burns, like Owen, is not really developed as a character. Prior is an officer, but working class, which sets him apart from most of the staff and other inmates at the rehabilitation hospital.

Rivers is a sympathetic carer and listener. One sequence shows him visiting a specialist in London, a Dr Yealland, whose brutal treatment of traumatised soldiers provides a striking contrast with those of Rivers. Rivers listens to their harrowing memories, and together with the audience learns of the horrors of the experiences of war. These confessions also take their toll of Rivers himself.


Much of the film is set in the relative quiet of the hospital and its grounds. But the memories and dreams of the characters enable us to see and hear the brutal and violent warfare. These flashbacks and dreams both illustrate the traumas of the different patients, but also provide motifs relating to the well-known poetry of Sassoon, and even more so, of Owen. A recurring dream sequence is set in some sort of tunnel near the front-line – clearly referencing one of Open’s most famous poems.

The use of colour [or lack of it] provides a striking contrast to the hospital. But another contrast using colour is also drawn between Rivers’ office where the patients recount their experiences, and the laboratory of Dr Yealland. The film appears at first as a fairly typical example of British ‘realist’ cinema. But the use of colour, of counterpoint in the editing, and the relationship between the film’s present, the flashbacks and the dreams, produces a rather more ambiguous sense of reality and subjectivity.

There are also several sequences away from the hospitals and the front-line. The most important of these depicts a relationship between Prior and a ‘munitioneer’ [a worker in a munitions factory), Sarah (Tanya Allen). Their relationship includes two scenes of sexual encounters. One provides a moment of rare tenderness late in the film: the other uses a flamboyant overhead shot as a moment of contrast. However, I did feel that this emphasis on heterosexual sex offered a distraction from the unexplored homoerotic and homosexual aspects of the story. It appears that these, and a bi-sexual aspect, are much more explicit in the original novel.

The film does explore the contrasts of class through Prior and the conflicts between youth and age and between mavericks and the military establishment. The film also offers an underlying sense of irony. Whilst Rivers’ methods are contrasted with those of Yealland, in the end both fulfil the same function, sending men back to the front-line and death.


One Response to “Regeneration, Britain 1997”

  1. […] There were also photographs of the treatments and developments for soldiers who suffered loss of limbs and organs in the conflict. There were interesting parallels with the film footage of post WWI rehabilitation screened at one of the HPPH WWI events, Regeneration (1997). […]

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