The Guardians review: Xavier Beauvois’ film explores the lives of a group of women who are left behind to work a family farm during World War I.
The Guardians review by Andrew Gaudion.
The First World War is not often the focus when it comes to cinematic depictions of a war-time experience, with films focusing on the Second World War being more prevalent. An even more neglected aspect of a war-time experience on screen is of the women and families who are left to keep business running as normal back at home. Both of these experiences are the focus of Xavier Beauvois’ (Of Gods and Men) latest film, set amongst the rural farmland of France during the First World War. Beauvois uses this neglected experience to bring to life a story of perseverance against the upheaval of The Great War.
The Guardians takes place on the Pandier Farm, which has been left under the care of Hortense (Nathalie Baye), the family matriarch, as her sons and son-in-law are sent off to War. With only her daughter Solange (Laura Smet) to aid her, she hires an orphaned worker in the form of the young Francine (Iris Bry). As the War continues to stretch on, life at the farm faces change and development, while the return of the son’s during moments of short leave stirs drama amongst the women left to keep the farm alive.
Aside from a chilling opening across a foggy, battle-worn landscape littered with the bodies of young men on both sides of the conflict (and some rather jarring dream sequences), Beauvois keeps the action away from muddy battles of The Great War. Instead, he keeps his frame on the women left to keep their family’s business operating. The War rears its head in a manner which is more directly personal, from the return of the son’s on short leave, to tense moments of the names of dead soldiers being read out at Church.
The more intimate focus that Beauvois applies makes this a unique film in the pantheon of Great War pictures. It displays a War-time experience not oft told and mines drama more from personal conflict than it does bombastic battles. These are women at its focus aren’t campaigning for their work and equality to be recognised, their strength comes from their desire to keep things running as close to normal as they possibly can. Their toil is not a matter of choice; they know they have to keep the farm producing and developing or their livelihood is gone.
The drive of these women is largely articulated through the characters of Hotense and Francine. Hotense wants a successful farm and a future for her son’s to return home to. Francine simply wants to feel a part of some kind of family, aiming to work hard to help Hotense meet her ambition.
Nathalie Baye and Iris Bry both turn in exceptional performances as Hortense and IRis respectively. Baye is stoic and driven, meaning that moments of devastation hit that much harder when you see this stone-cold exterior get torn down by a grief that far too many mothers would have had to face. The most eye-catching performance though comes from Bry, making an incredible impression in her debut role, balancing a strength and naivety that makes you care deeply for Francine’s experience across the narrative, even during the moments where the drama threatens to become a little too melodramatic.
Spanning over the course of the war with a prologue tipping into the 20’s, much of the drama occurs at a slow-burn pace. Beauvois uses this slow-burn approach to craft tension from moments in which the son’s are absent, creating an atmosphere where tragedy seems all but inevitable. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, be it focusing on farm-hands enjoying a lunch-time break in the golden wheatfields on a summer’s day, or emerging fog swallowing up a soldier as he leaves home for War. Many of the images are striking, compensating for moments in the film which strive a little too hard to stir drama.
The Guardians may be too slow for viewers looking for a little more action in their war-time narratives. But, for those looking for a change of pace, place and focus, The Guardians offers a sensitive and gorgeous portrayal of a war-time experience which is often overlooked, but no less devastating.
The Guardians review by Andrew Gaudion, August 2018.
The Guardians is released in UK cinemas on Friday 17th August 2018.