Deathwatch at IMDB
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All Creepy on the Western FrontBy Derek Elley
LONDON (Variety) January 6, 2003
"Billy Elliot" discovery Jamie Bell, now 16, makes a brave career choice for his second outing with "Deathwatch," a psycho-horror movie set amid the muddy, rat-infested trenches of WWI in which he's surrounded by a strong Brit cast all chewing the scenery.
Relentlessly grim, rain-drenched tale about a group of soldiers driven crazy by some unseen evil is a tour-de-force of production design and lensing that delivers the genre goods in its final reel only. Clever marketing and fast playoff will decide pic's box office fortunes, which should enjoy a comfortable second coming on ancillary. Following its release in Hong Kong early November, film went out wide in the U.K. Dec. 6.
Set in an unspecified part of the Western Front in 1917, movie starts with a chaotic nighttime battle in which the 10 members of Y Company end up next day lost behind enemy lines. After taking one terrified Hun (Torben Liebrecht) prisoner, they set about securing their position in the maze of trenches and tunnels, while radioing for help.
Commanded by an upper-crust milquetoast, Capt. Jennings (Laurence Fox), the company is a surly mixture of disparate types. Youngest of the group is Shakespeare (Bell), a 16-year-old who lied about his age when signing up; the nuttiest is Quinn (Andy Serkis), who wanders around with a club of nails and collects German scalps. Others include a whey-faced priest (Hugh O'Conor), a dedicated doctor (Matthew Rhys) and a pragmatic sergeant (Hugo Speer).
When one of the mud-covered corpses comes to life, and is shot by a spooked-out private (Hans Matheson), it gradually dawns on the group that there's something strange out there. And after three bodies covered in barbed wire suddenly become murderous, the German prisoner tells them they're all going to turn on each other and die.
That's basically all that happens in the script by Michael J. Bassett, here making his big-screen helming debut after TV work. Amid all the rain and sludge, lovingly detailed in widescreen by cameraman Hubert Taczanowski, character development remains largely waterlogged and subservient to physical action. Best stuff is saved for the end, as Quinn crucifies the German prisoner and goes completely off the rails.
As the voice of reason and common sense among all the escalating madness, Bell holds his own against colorful competition, gradually moving into the foreground. Rhys, too, is noteworthy as the quiet doc. Rest of the cast play it grim-faced or in top gear, with Serkis dominating as the lunatic Quinn.
However, for a drama which is more about an abstract conception of evil than a tangible force, the film is light on real shocks and any sense of engulfing doom. Though production designer Aleksandar Denic's warren of slippery, blood'n'rain-soaked trenches is impressive, and Bassett's nimble direction makes the most of the undifferentiated settings, picture is largely kept going by its physical mechanics rather than dramatic revelations.
Other technical credits are fine, from Anne Sopel's fluid editing to Lucinda Wright's lived-in costumes. Score by Curt Cress and Chris Weller adds little except background noise.
Originally titled "No Man's Land," pic was entirely shot outside Prague.
Reviewed at Odeon Wimbledon 2, London, Dec. 9, 2002.
TM & © 2003 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved