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DVD Review: Wartime Britain

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Wartime Britain is an excellent DVD set chronicling life in Great Britain during World War II. The five-disc collection contains two full-length films, The Heat Of The Day, and Housewife 49, plus the six-part, three-disc mini-series Island At War. Each of these explores the effects of the war on the home front in various contexts. The issues of love, devotion, naivety, and betrayal are all explored in a most reservedly British manner. The results are provocative psychologically, and often stunning visually.

The Heat Of The Day (1989) originally aired on Masterpiece Theatre. It stars Michael Gambon, Patricia Hodge, and Michael York in a wonderfully complex story of misplaced trust and betrayal at the height of the war. While the tale is something of a spy vs. spy thriller, the real subject is love and rejection in a doomed three-way affair.

The screenplay of The Heat Of The Day was written by Nobel laureate Harold Pinter, based on the novel by Elizabeth Bowen. The bonus features on the DVD include an extensive text biography of Pinter, as well as filmographies of Gambon, Hodge, and York.

Housewife, 49 (2006) is an adaptation of the wartime diaries of Nella Last. She took part in a government program called the Mass Observation Project. British citizens were encouraged to keep track of their day-to-day experiences during the war. The diaries were to be compiled into a unique record of life in England during this extraordinary time.

Victoria Wood wrote the screenplay, and stars as Mrs. Last. The title comes from the anonymous moniker the author is given when first submitting her experiences as a 49-year-old housewife. The film is a fascinating story of a middle-aged woman finally coming into her own via her volunteer efforts for the war. Wood’s performance is remarkable as she suffers all sorts of class indignities, and manages to rise above it all by the end. Her grace and poise put all of her would-be tormentors to shame, including her own husband.

The DVD special features of Housewife, 49 include a background on the U.K.’s Mass Observation Project, a text interview with Victoria Wood, and filmographies of the cast.

The mini-series Island At War (2004) was another Masterpiece Theatre production, and is a triumph. I was previously unaware that any of Britain had been occupied by the Nazis. It turns out that the sparsely populated Channel Islands, which sit a mere ten miles off the coast of France, were occupied during the war years.

Island At War is set on the fictional island of St. Gregory, presumably a device to enable a more dramatic rendering of the facts. What emerges over the course of the six episodes is a fascinating story of two opposing cultures forced to coexist over a fairly long period of time. The events unfold through the eyes of three families who had lived peacefully on the island for generations.

When the British Armed Forces are called away from the islands, the residents are well aware that they will soon be invaded. The smart ones immediately evacuate to England, including most of the Jewish population. The Germans make their intentions crystal clear with an air raid on the harbor, which sets the stage for their occupation.

With most of the young men of the islands already conscripted, and no troops left behind, the residents offer no resistance to the Nazis. Their pacifism confuses the Germans, and sets up an uneasy alliance between the two groups. This only intensifies as the monotony of day-to-day life wears on. The Germans have left behind their wives and girlfriends, while most of the English men are fighting the war elsewhere. A fair amount of fraternization between the opposite sexes ensues, in a morally ambiguous environment.

There are a number of surprising plot twists in the tale, and I found it thoroughly enjoyable. Some of the bombing raids and other battles are simply spectacular as well. DVD bonus sections include historical background features, cast reflections, a behind-the-scenes photo gallery, and cast filmographies.

Wartime Britain features nearly ten hours of material, focusing mainly on the psychological effects on the population during those harrowing years. The films are uniformly excellent, and the whole set is highly recommended.

 

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