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Review by Carrie Gorringe
Posted 21 August 1998

  Directed by Gillies MacKinnon

Starring Jonathan Pryce, James Wilby,
Jonny Lee Miller, Stuart Bunce, Tanya Allen,
David Hayman and Dougray Scott

Screenplay by Allan Scott,
based on the novel by Pat Barker

Yossarian, the anti-hero of Heller’s novel Catch-22, was intimately acquainted with the contradictory aspects of sanity and madness as it applied to military operations some twenty years before his real-life counterpart, poet Siegfried Sassoon uncovered a similar modus operandi at work in the British Army. The only difference between the two men, aside from the wars in question, is the behavior of officials who discern that the promulgation of such "sanity" might be harmful to the mental health of the public. Disgusted with the wasteful bloodletting at the Somme, Sassoon (Wilby) has thrown his Military Cross (given "for conspicuous gallantry") into the nearest river. He has taken his protest against what he sees as the military equivalent of managerial incompetence far beyond the realm of seething in silent rage; as a member of the well-connected, his message has rung through the halls of Parliament. For undertaking this "mad" endeavor, Sassoon has been parceled up and sent to Craiglockhart, the British Army’s answer for those deemed to be mentally unstable. It is the task of psychiatrist William Rivers (Pryce) to make Sassoon "well" again (i.e., oblige him to recant). Should Sassoon refuse to recant, he will be subject to the tender mercies of a court-martial and a potential date with a firing squad -- an alternative which Sassoon’s friend and fellow scribe, Robert Graves (Scott), is fervently attempting to circumvent. The curing of Sassoon is going to be rather a tall order in the general scheme of things, for not only is Sassoon vehemently opposed to disowning his newly-formed "heresies" (though he is not categorically opposed to war), but Rivers, after countless hours of acting as a sponge for the neuroses of the psychologically wounded, is badly in need of a wringing out.

Rivers, you see, is one of those newfangled Freudians -- the type who wants to talk and talk until all the traumas have been extirpated. His work is a marked contrast to many of his colleagues, whose methods of treating shell-shock can best be described as thinly-veiled sadism under the guise of therapy. Unfortunately for Rivers, his colleagues’ techniques are more the norm than the exception; the relatively free-form nature of the Freudian method clashes with the Army’s need for rapid cures (it’s running low on cannon fodder), and Rivers’ conscience is tortured by the demand for pasting men’s psyches back together with the medical equivalent of Kleenex and chewing gum instead of new steel panels and rivets. In the eyes of the men Rivers is treating, and, increasingly, in his own, it appears as if the Army’s point of view on the matter is a most cynical one: as long as the men look and sound all right, fundamental cures be damned. But damned if certain individuals aren’t resistant to the Army’s timetable. Billy Prior (Miller) is one of those non-public-school types never indoctrinated with the principle of the stiff upper lip, except when shell shock has rendered him speechless. Once Prior has regained his voice, poor Rivers discovers just how unfortunate this seemingly fortuitous event is, for Prior soon begins to harangue Rivers most insolently concerning the evil state of affairs (all of which Rivers already knows but is morally and legally constrained from pronouncing). It’s a relief for everyone when Prior meets a charming "munitionette" named Sarah (Allen) from the local village. Meanwhile, Sassoon strikes up a friendship with the would-be poet Wilfred Owen (Bunce) and encourages Owen to write about something he knows: the War, thereby setting in motion yet another promising career cut short in battle.

You might think that the above synopsis has given too much away; in fact, it has barely begun to probe the surface. Due in no small part to the ironies involved in the story (embedded in the very title), Regeneration defies simplistic distillation -- a truly awesome feat for a film that runs barely over ninety minutes in length (too many films these days seem to accomplish far less with more). Contained within the film’s narrow confines are many questions about the morality of "regenerating" men only to send them back to almost-certain death (including whether or not conscientious objection is a moral stance in light of the fact that others may be dying in one’s stead). Yet, Scott and MacKinnon aren’t afraid to take on the seemingly black-and white issues and discover within them endless shades of grey that don’t necessarily vitiate the legitimacy of absolutes when necessary. They cut through the devotion to cant to the devotion to morality within the self (within the context of careful self-examination and devotion to the truth). In other words, the war may be ludicrous, but it may be more ludicrous not to fight, in light of the fact that the personal costs may be higher than death itself. These are complex issues that tend to defy universally-applicable explanations and, to his credit, MacKinnon keeps his goals within a manageable space. The net result is something that is small and satisfying (if also unsettling and not without controversy) rather than overreaching and disappointing.

The film’s visuals emphasize this ambiguity. Many of the scenes containing wartime horrors are redolent with a cold, bluish tint (reminiscent of early cyanotypes) and are long shots, courtesy of a dolly; the focal distance allows less for an unthinking reaction than a contemplation of the issues at hand. The first shot in Regeneration -- inserted into the opening credits -- establishes the tone in a no-nonsense fashion. The camera tracks over a devastated landscape replete with corpses and near-corpses, then slowly enters the regimented madness of a trench; the effect is not unlike that of a scientist peering through a microscope to gaze upon the spectacle of cancerous tissue metastasizing with abandon, powerless to stop the process. Yet, the vast space between camera/viewer and subject also allows for thoughtfulness in the midst of shocking imagery. Those who doubt that the difference exists should compare this film to the mind- and-soul-numbing images in Saving Private Ryan. MacKinnon, who made the coming-of --age in 1960s Glasgow film, Small Faces (itself a small gem), and managed to inspire similar feelings of identification with and distance from a main character torn between the self-actualization of art and the quick thrills of gang life, has clearly thought about the situations that war inspires, and the powerful aspects of Barker and Scott’s interpretations of said situations. He’s done it thoroughly until, as they say, his brain was sore. The audience both benefits and suffers from this approach: its members benefit from the varying points of view; its members benefit, because they have to consider varying aspects simultaneously and suffer for precisely the same reason. MacKinnon is not fighting Spielberg’s more clearly-cut war, but Regeneration makes no less sense, or is less correct in the few, tentative conclusions it draws, for that difference.

Not surprisingly, the acting in Regeneration is equally slow and contemplative. MacKinnon rightly allows the actors time to grow upon the audience (How he manages to do this in such a short amount of screen time is a miracle in itself). The intellectual duels between Pryce and Wilby and Pryce and Miller are deceptively simple on the surface. Pryce and Wilby’s interaction underlines how nave the motivations were concerning Sassoon’s public tirade. Wilby, who plays Sassoon with the sort of barely-repressed passion that neatly illustrates all of the contradictions making up Sassoon’s life -- his indifference to consequences combined with his love for order, his hatred of senseless war combined with the enjoyment he felt at murdering German soldiers in battle -- effectively presents the poet as the archetype of the outsider with inside connections. It is Rivers’ task to make Sassoon and Prior understand how potentially inexorable the steps are that they have taken -- and, in Sassoon’s case, that he is not as socially immune to the reactions of society as he believes. Rivers must explain to his patients why they have become the illustrations for Yates’ dictum about the worst being full of passionate intensity; such passion can lead to self-immolation if taken too far. Rivers hints darkly, yet sympathetically, of the problems stemming from Sassoon’s homosexuality, because it is another weapon which will be employed against him if he refuses to capitulate, and Sassoon must have been conscious of the martyrdom of another brilliantly insolent writer named Oscar Wilde barely twenty years before him. As Billy Prior, Miller (Sick Boy from Trainspotting) attains and holds the right level of defensive prickliness one might expect from the upwardly mobile. Pryce, last seen in Carrington and Evita, becomes an effective counterfoil to Wilby and Miller’s portrayals. Owen and Allen, in roles that might be perceived as nothing more than foils to the main combatants, hold their own quite nicely and carve out their own distinctive niches. All of the participants involved are playing psychological chess with each other, and the outcome can never be said to seem preordained -- a testimony to the talents employed.

Regeneration may not provide the nice pat answer to the Horatian question of whether or not it is truly "dulce et decorum est pro patria mori," ("it is lovely and proper to die for one’s country"), but it should inspire no little contemplation on the murky nature of human morality under extraordinary circumstances.

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