1917, the Western Front. Amid the carnage of World War I, rookie soldier Charlie Shakespeare is forced to follow his unit over the top. Blinded by a thick fog, they happen upon a Nazi trench, where they pitch camp and slowly succumb to an evil spirit that feeds on murder and madness…
After the success of Billy Elliot, Jamie Bell chose this ambitious World War I ghost story as his follow-up. With its Hellraiser-style gore and Thing-like, claustrophobic setting, it couldn't have been more different from the politically-skewed, feel-good drama that made his name. Sadly, Bell might have been better off taking some time to polish his craft – what passed as youthful exuberance and freshness in Billy Elliot now looks uncomfortably like not actually being very good at acting.
Much of the problem lies with first-timer Bassett's direction. Though the production design is superb and the rest of the cast are – despite a cheesy script – mostly decent, Bassett's inexperience shows in his slack timing and poor handling of the shock scenes. His camera circles the trench with an almost wilful disregard for anything that seems to be happening at the core of each scene, and the murky cinematography makes it hard to see what's happening there, let alone care.Which is a shame, since Deathwatch is a film with a lot of potential.
Bassett has assembled some fine young actors who struggle manfully to put a bit of life into 2D characters. Fox, as the deluded, toffee-nosed captain, is especially entertaining, while Serkis goes a little too far as the Kurtz-like Quinn, puffing and bellowing like an apoplectic Keith Allen. In amongst them, Bell really is the innocent abroad, and it's hard to buy into his character and follow him to the film's queasy, quasi-pacifist punchline.
Ultimately, though, this isn't really meant to be a character piece, and the final verdict has to rest on what the film tries, and fails, to deliver. While its genre-borrowing is arguably more subtle than Danny Boyle's George Romero-heavy 28 Days Later (otherwise known as Dawn Of The Day Of The Night Of The Living Crazies), Bassett is under-equipped to do anything with it.
What Boyle may lack in originality he makes up for with technical know-how, and there's nothing here to rival his film's tense opening moments. However, these things come with time, and Bassett is young enough to learn and improve. On the basis of this, though, it won't happen overnight.
A well-designed but badly handled horror fable, scuppered by a weak leading man, bad direction and a clumsy war-is-hell script.