Regeneration (1997)

D: Gilles McKinnon
S: Jonathan Pryce, James Wilby

During the First World War, men faced questions about themselves never asked before on such a scale when the most enormously destructive conflict the world had ever seen felled tens of thousands every week. Some men broke, and found themselves in asylums. Regeneration is a film about some of these men, and some of those who treated them. It deals with a change in the conception of the world so vast that it needed a whole new language to deal with it.

That language was psychoanalysis. It has been the dominant conceptual mode in the western world during the twentieth century. It has replaced religion as the explanation for everything. We understand ourselves and our relationship with the world and with others in its terms.

The cinema has been the art form of the twentieth century. It has been the primary medium through which people have experienced elements of life not accessible to them directly. It was a natural and sometimes progressive marriage when the two were combined as early as Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali's surrealist masterpiece Un Chien Andalou.

Psychoanalysis has always had a particularly cinematic dimension, complete with dream sequence flashbacks and bouts of rationalisation of the visual signifiers provided by them. It should then perhaps seem quite natural that an adaptation of Pat Barker's novel exploring the articles of faith of this new religion should be made just as the twentieth century comes to a close.

But though Regeneration is impeccably produced and cannily acted in the manner of many splendid BBC films of the past, it has little cinematic resonance (a wonderful opening pan across the mudded battlefields of France turns out to be the only real moment of interest). It is a relentlessly talky film with all too much rationalisation and not nearly enough ocular stimulation to sustain an audience for nearly two hours.

The film has many subjects, all of them interrelated. It concerns itself with the memory of WWI, memory itself, masculinity, homoeroticism, masculinity in war, the morality of military conflict, class, science, military and civil hierarchies, and poetry. This last is the one which is at most odds with the nature of the medium itself, because despite the visual dimensions of certain poetry, it is difficult to integrate a discussion of the form of memory and rationalisation in print with a work of visual art. This literary adaptation then becomes an uncomfortable mixture of biopic and psychotherapy session, exploring the motivations of poets Seigfreid Sassoon and Wilfred Owen (two of the patients at the asylum) without ever really bringing a cinematic analysis to bear on poetry itself as a form of record.

Though loosely based on true events and personalities, the film in no way presents itself as a document of history. It is rather a cerebral attempt to study the representation of history and to self-consciously explore the relationship between humanity and human endeavour as represented by conflict and enshrined in history. It is also a study of the emergence of psychoanalysis as a method of doing so, and again, within its own frames of reference, the film does a worthy, careful, meticulous job.

But it is ultimately quite lifeless as a film. It is a teleplay which derives all of its impact from words written and spoken, and not from images which give them form. It consists of lengthy conversations between men who constantly exchange meaningful glances, all the while suggesting an insultingly simplistic correlation between the exhibition of feeling and homosexuality. But there is precious little reward for the viewer from watching it, save the strong performances of the actors.

The film is avowedly verbal, and if you have the patience to listen to it for as long as it runs, you may get something from it. It is certainly serious, and only slightly pretentious. Those yearning for some sustained intellectualism in the cinema without European mysticism attached may find it fills a gap. But it belongs on television, where it can be seen as a good example of the use of the medium and the size of the frame. On the big screen, it lacks energy and scale, despite the enormity of the issues it seeks to address.

Regeneration is an interesting text, but it is not an interesting film. Those with a predisposition to enjoy the exploration of psychoanalysis (and indeed, the psyche) in a verbal form will enjoy it enormously. Most others would do best to leave it be and take a look at some Alfred Hitchcock films instead.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.