I was asked to add my own final reading, so here it is.
The one-hour run of The Burying Party (2018) contains the ghosts of several films. A gritty war film depicting the real life poet Wilfred Owen’s first exposures to the trenches; a film that dives deep into the literary world he occupies, giving greater detail and focus to its cast and their interpersonal relationships. A deep dive into the development of Owen’s writing voice; a condemnation of war-hungry empire. Potentially, even, two or more hours that try tries to combine some or all of these features.
The Burying Party itself is is not any of these films, but I think it accomplishes an unusual sense of completeness in its fragmented brevity. As it moves across time and space, through disparate visual and auditory worlds, it interweaves snapshots of Owen’s life at the front and on leave. In other words, the film can roughly be split into his witnessing first-hand “the pity of war,” and the interpersonal, artistic journey that enabled him to capture it, in such a way that we’re reading and remembering him now, over a hundred years later.
The film’s contrasting settings are conveyed with care and detail. We open on Owen (Matthew Staite) at war, surrounded with what I’ve come to think of universally as gray-green “World War One color grading,” and accompanied by the haunting, discordant sounds of a piercing yet irresolute soundtrack, which punctuated by the sounds of the war itself. When the next scene finds him back home, in his mother’s house, seeing him clean and indoors is as jarring to the viewer as it clearly feels to the character.
As he and the rest of the cast navigate indoor spaces, as well as the breathtaking English pastoral scenes that our friend-from-two-weeks-ago Sigfried Sassoon (Sid Phoenix) critiques Owen for lauding in his early poetry, the contradictions at play within these poets’ emotional lives surface with these alterations in visual worlds. These are mirrored by the soundtrack, which alternates between the harshly modern instrumentals of the war scenes, the stately pianos and violins of indoor social spaces, the birdsong and seaside of the English outdoors, and – at certain times, like the first meeting between Owen and Sassoon – the perfect silence that backgrounds dialogue.
Owen and Sassoon’s dynamic fruitfully evades explicit melodrama or overstatement but nonetheless read to me as the heart of the film. While I’m unfamiliar with all but the most famous of Owen’s works, and only know the basic outline of his biography, the interplay between the two (and at times others in their circles) surrounding war poetry and its mission felt memorable and specific in a way that literary-biography type movies sometimes fail to achieve. I don’t know how it would play to experts, or to people with less knowledge of early twentieth century English literary circles than I, but to me the exposition surrounding the cast’s relationships and life positions felt effective and economical.
Outside of art, politics, and war, in the world of feeling or affection, more is unsaid between Owen and Sassoon than said for the majority of the movie. The intensity of this oft-mythologized literary mentorship was effectively carried by Staite and Phoenix, both in the realm of independent acting choices and the quietly intense chemistry between the two.
As an admirer and writer of creative nonfiction, watching The Burying Party acts in close parallel to the experience of reading a fragmented lyric essay. We do not get the full story, but the parts we get are vivid and well-chosen enough to form a cohesive whole nonetheless. We might yearn, in fact (or at least I did), for hours of watching Owen and Sassoon discuss poetic form, for Owen, Sassoon, and Graves to get to sing the entirety of The Leaving of Liverpool without breaking off, for Owen to have a full conversation with his mother. But each moment we get to see is beautifully crafted; and when it comes to Wilfred Owen himself, time’s limited run is arguably the entire point.