The name Wilfred Owen may be more familiar to some than others. When his name is first invoked in The Burying Party, each audience member will react in one of three ways: either they’ll be on board straight away, find the name rings a bell, or be none the wiser. However deep your knowledge of the renowned soldier and wartime poet, though, Richard Weston provides a comprehensive and handsomely staged recount of his life, The Burying Party, which caters to all.
When we first see Owen (played by Matthew Staite) he is back home, recovering from shell shock – as evidenced by the flashbacks he keeps having. He is writing, but his time on the battlefield has left him so timid and unsure of himself, he won’t even share his work with his own mother. All that changes when he meets fellow soldier Siegfried Sassoon (Sid Phoenix).
Showing an understanding of his mindset, Sassoon encourages Owen to let him read his poems. From this exchange, a bond forms between the pair. Sassoon introduces him a literary circle that includes Robert Graves (Will Burren) and CK Scott Moncrieff (Harry Owens), who Owen starts to form an attachment to. Is it to help get his work published, to use Moncrieff’s connections to stop his redeployment, or is it something more?
As Owen’s relationship with Moncrieff grows, though, Sassoon becomes concerned. He claims to be fearful of Moncrieff’s influence over Owen and the effect it will have on his poems, but it’s obvious something else is going on.
For the unknowing, while it has never been confirmed, it has long been speculated that Owen and Sassoon were gay, though there is little with which to prove this. The film, understandably, feels the need to address Owen’s private life, but with little historical evidence to go on, it doesn’t really know how to approach the matter. As such, nothing that is explored is really answered.
The film does well to cover the rest of Owen’s life, in particular his short prominence as a poet. This is clearly an important subject for Weston, and co-writer Laurence Thompson, who have visibly performed extensive research on this period of history to create as definitive a portrait of Owen as possible.
The effort that has gone into The Burying Party is unquestionable: it’s well-photographed by Meurig Marshall, which is heightened by great attention to period detail – all of which capture the time period with authenticity and accuracy. One element used to great effect in the film is having well-chosen extracts of Owen’s poetry told in voiceover, which help add to the story and give insight into his mindset at the time.
That being said, the film doesn’t do anything really surprising with its narrative, and by staying on rails it can end up feeling quite effect-less. Whereas we want to get more invested in Owen and Sassoon’s growing relationship, even the uninitiated can tell nothing will come of it. Also problematic is that, while the film tries hard to provide something for all audiences, with its staging and production values it feels most like it’s trying to win over awards juries.
The Burying Party is a well made film that categorically covers Wilfred Owen’s life in a way that is accessible and of value to all who will see it. However, it’s held back by its overly-familiar structure and by asking more questions than it has the answers for.