Monday, 14 November 2011

Owen Sheers' Resistance, Page and Screen

Ten days ago, glamorous literary figures Owen Sheers and Francesca Rhydderch met at Aberystwyth Arts Centre to preview the new film Resistance, based on Sheers’ novel imagining 1944 Britain under Nazi occupation, and starring Michael Sheen. The session explored how ‘true’ to the novel was Sheers’ first screenplay (co-written with director Amit Guptar) or indeed the final movie to the script.

This approach underlined too heavily the original text’s supremacy. But Sheers did emphasise his goal of enabling a vision faithful to the spirit of the film. And while for him the process brought home how much freedom a novelist has, he had relished the restrictions (eg on cast and viewpoint) imposed by the medium and budget.

This poet came to reinterpret these as a creative challenge akin to verse metre. The screenplay’s demands for a central drama led to his ready re-focus on the relationship between farmer’s wife Sarah and patrol leader Albrecht. This flexibility reminded me of Caryl Lewis’ approach to her first screenplay: a version of her novel Martha, Jac a Sianco (also starring Sharon Morgan). When required to amplify Jac’s dalliance with brash gold-digger Judy, she didn’t hesitate.

Many writers are in the business because they crave control, so Sheers’ acceptance that cinema is collaborative, and his admission that only one third of his original screenplay survived the input of creative others, was disarming. Scripted dialogue was the major casualty; most often sacrificed to actors’ credo that one meaningful glance is worth a thousand words. ‘I told them I hoped it bloody is,’ Sheers said, ‘because a massive plotline hangs on that speech!’

Resistance, fiction and film, belong to the speculative genre of ‘alternative history’, and Sheers was asked whether the movie confirmed whether his basic premise worked. He described how a key scene at Llanthony Show had caused double-takes among the extras arriving on a set where swastikas jostled championship rosettes, making him feel ‘dismay’ at the visual and conceptual desecration he had unwittingly brought upon his home patch.

Perhaps at that moment Sheers regretted the first of his two provisos to the director (the second being that the German officers speak their own tongue): that shooting and setting be in the Black Mountains. The steep-sided Olchon Valley, made famous by book and screen versions of Chatwin’s On the Black Hill, lets nature lend a bleak outlook. Rightly though, artifice and artistry are the architects of Resistance’s distinctive look: sustained close-ups influenced by Terence Malik’s The Thin Red Line; the sepia-washed farmsteads and stranded figures of US artist Andrew Wyeth.

Completed in only two-and-a-half years from script to release on 25 November, Resistance was quick alchemy: he starts work on an original screenplay next year.

A version of this was published in Gwen's Western Mail Insider books column on Saturday 12 November 2011.

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