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Digging for victory in The Guardians

A wonderful cast and superb cinematography in story of a farming family’s struggle while their men are away fighting in the trenches

17 August, 2018 — By Dan Carrier

Iris Bry and Nathalie Baye in The Guardians

THE GUARDIANS
Directed by Xavier Beauvois
Certificate 12a
☆☆☆☆

THE French countryside becomes a character in this beautiful, thoughtful, fulfilling film by Xavier Beauvois.

The rural life led by a family who till the soil, and have been ripped apart by the bosses and generals taking their men away to fight in the trenches, is a deeply moving, wonderfully satisfying slow burner.

It blends a terrific story, a wonderful cast with superb cinematography and gently leads us through a plot that feels a little like a 19th-century melodrama, something Thackeray might have conjured up, using the Napoleonic War as the backdrop instead of a conflict taking place 100 years later.

Hortense (Nathalie Baye) is the farm matriarch who is now not just the head of a household but its main worker: her sons and son-in-law have put on the tunics of the French Army and are in the trenches.

We find her driving the plough through the earth, milking the cows, and keeping the farm going with her daughter Solange (played by her real daughter, Laura Smet, a striking, beautiful performance consumed by fear for what her husband is going through).

With the men away, the farm needs extra hands – there is talk of buying a tractor and a combine harvester with the help of a government grant if the machinery can be used by three other farmers in the neighbourhood – decisions Hortense must make, knowing she is acting as a guardian for land she wants to be in good shape for when her boys come home.

Help arrives in the form of orphaned Francine (Iris Bry), a red-headed, toughened, silent young woman who wants to find herself a place she can be valued and prove her worth – and the farm is the place to do such a thing. The women are the leads, with their sons and husbands appearing on leave, bringing with them the horrors of what they have seen and done. With

Hortense a guide, Francine works through the days, weeks and seasons – Beauvois lingers on each chore, taking the viewer into the guts of being a farm worker, not romanticising it but also showing the joy of hard work.

The war is not some hidden, non-entity: an opening shot makes it very clear slaughter is not far away, and its effects will, of course, eventually hit the farm, though in unexpected ways. This is about love, about family loyalty, about grief, and managing in circumstances beyond your control.

The brothers and brother-in-law represent various different aspects of the experience for those French workers who fought. We have Constant (Nicolas Giraud), who wins a medal and is promoted. We have Clovis (Olivier Rabourdin), who is radicalised, and speaks to his family of how the German soldier opposite him is exactly the same as he is, and can’t understand why workers should be aiming guns at each other instead of the generals and industrialists.

Then there is the good-looking Georges (Cyril Descours), whose return from the front creates a crucial plot driver involving Francine.

French family rural life looks gorgeous here: we are taken through the crucial years of the war, and through the seasons on the farm, too: so while a caption will come up and explain this is now, for example, 1916 – making the viewer aware of the slaughter taking place in the fields of the north – we watch as a harvest is sown and then gathered in, as cows are calved and milked.

There is a slow beat, creating a rural pastoral for the viewer to gently slip into to.

It’s calm and comforting and makes the return of the soldiers even more striking. A superb story, beautifully told.

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