Siegfried Loraine Sassoon is probably best remembered for a series of poems he wrote during the First World War. However, despite this penchant for poetry, Sassoon was also known for his reckless enthusiasm that earned him the nickname of 'Mad Jack'. Angered by the war-related deaths of his younger brother Hamo and a close friend within six months of one another, Sassoon was determined to inflict his wrath on the Germans a hundred-fold. This vengeful zeal ultimately culminated in his earning of the Military Cross in 1916, after he successfully returned his platoon to safety following a raid on Kiel Trench. However, less than year later, this celebrated hero would turn on the British war effort.
After suffering a shoulder injury during the Second Battle of the Scarpe, Sassoon came into contact with several outspoken pacifists while convalescing in hospital. After recovering from his war wounds, Sassoon wrote his infamous 'Declaration of Willful Defiance', an anti-war tirade that protested the British government's efforts that had transformed the war against Germany into what he termed a 'war of aggression'. After presenting this bold denunciation to his superiors, Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh to undergo 'treatment'. Though his presence at the hospital was due to political reasons, he was officially placed there for the treatment for shell-shock, or what is now clinically referred to aspost-traumatic stress disorder.
Now they can explain away my protest... I'm a loonie.
It is during this time of Sassoon's life that the British-Canadian film "Regeneration" takes place. Based on Booker Prize-winning author Pat Barker's novel, this film explores the moral recuperation of Sassoon (played by James Wilby) under the care of psychiatrist Dr. William Rivers (Jonathan Pryce of "Tomorrow Never Dies"). Other patients that are undergoing treatment at the hospital, whom Sassoon befriends, include the most famous poet of World War I, Wilfred Owen (Stuart Bunce), and Billy Prior (Jonny Lee Miller), an officer who has gone mute and lost his memory as a result of a deeply disturbing battlefield incident.
The only thing important thing was to get him back to the front lines. He wasn't a man, but a fighting machine in need of repair.
Narratively, "Regeneration" is a lot like "Good Will Hunting". Like the mutually beneficial doctor-patient relationship between Sean McGuire and Will Hunting, Rivers ends up becoming profoundly influenced by his patients. He becomes so troubled by the tattered lives of his shell-shocked patients, that he soon finds himself exhibiting their symptoms. And despite his efforts to make Sassoon recant his anti-war assertions, Rivers begins to question his role in the war-- playing god for the battle-scarred men under his care, deciding when they can be returned to active duty. So they can be subjected to the horrors of war once again.
Breakdown isn't caused by a single traumatic event... it's an erosion.
This film brings to mind the other war film of the season, "Saving Private Ryan". However, "Regeneration" can be considered the flip-side of Spielberg's epic. Though the horrors of war are effectively envisioned in "Regeneration" (though on a much smaller scale), this film is a decidedly more thematic exploration of not only the horrors of war, but the long and difficult recovery from such horrors. This thematic exposition is so entrenched in "Regeneration" that it becomes the film's folly. Dense with dialogue, this talking-heads exercise lacks the requisite chemistry, passion, or eloquence to make it an outstanding film. While Gillies Mackinnon direction does have its moments of brilliance, such as the few-and-far-between battle scenes juxtaposed with poetry or pained remembrances, the core of the film, the angst-filled interchange between its principals, is lifeless intellectualism. Even with the attempts to inject life into the story, such as an awkwardly-inserted romance between Prior and a fetching 'munitionette' (Tanya Allen), this listless and dismal film fails to achieve its lofty intentions.
Curious... in charge, but not in control.
This is unfortunate, given the subject matter and the numerous opportunities afforded by the combination of poignant images and the articulate rhythm of poetry. Perhaps if the film had taken a more metaphysical tact, with dialogue that was less verbose and more metaphorical in nature, "Regeneration" might have been the stirring film it should have been.
No doubt they'll soon get well; the shock and strain
Have caused their stammering, disconnected talk.
Of course they're 'longing to go out again,'--
These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk.
They'll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed
Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died,--
Their dreams that drip with murder; and they'll be proud
Of glorious war that shatter'd all their pride...
Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;
Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.
"Survivors", October, 1917.