War book is the latest creative offering from director Tom Harper who is probably best known for the thriller The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death. Written by the multi-talented and prolific Jack Thorne (How I Live Now, A Long Way Down, TV’s Skins/This is England, West End’s adaptation of Let The Right One In) this superb film is truly a masterpiece of British cinema and has beautifully crafted personalities. Having previously worked together on The Scouting Book for Boys in 2009, there is most definitely chemistry between these two filmmakers as they have delivered a film which truly draws you in.
Since the 1960s the British government has made use of simulation “games” to help formulate protocol and procedure in “what if” scenarios, but what happens when it is no longer a game? Now, over three days, eight government officials will play the game, as Sophie Okoneda’s character Philippa points out: “We put people in a box, we close the lid, and we shake it a bit and investigate what we come up with.”
“We put people in a box, we close the lid, and we shake it a bit and investigate what we come up with.”
As these people enter this simply decorated room one by one, we encounter a truly diverse cast of characters. Out in the real world, which lies on the other side of modest wood paneling and a large expanse of glass shrouded behind monochrome blinds, a truckers strike threatens to bring trade to a halt. Stress levels are high as inter-departmental meetings are being scheduled around the clock with various negotiations tacking place with people unwilling to listen.
Political factions begin to show and contrasting outlooks on life and how to govern create antagonizing debate. Conflict is not only sewn within the four walls but comes with each person in the form of baggage they must learn to leave at the door. Shaun Evans’ character, Tom, has a particular difficulty with his peers, being the Liberal amidst the Conservatives. His wife is suffering from some mental disability and he is personally at war with his government whom he sees as unsympathetic to her plight.
Tom wears his heart on his sleeve and is first to show signs of breaking under the scenario’s grueling ethical dilemma. He laments to Philippa that she and the others are being unsympathetic: “Everyone eventually making these decisions will also be going through personal shit.” To which she curtly replies: “Agreed, Maria is in remission for breast cancer. Did you know that? No! Mo’s wife recently miscarried, did you know that? No! And James, well it is hard to know what’s going on with James but the hope is that the people making these decisions will know how to rise above their own personal problems and do their job.”
Maria, played by New Zealender Kerry Fox, is an unforgettable character. Classy, cutthroat and brutally honest, she is a light in the darkness. Undeterred by the mind games played by James (Nicholas Burns), the cocky self-absorbed defense secretary who believes he is blessing all with his mere presence, she gallantly pushes for a logical solution.
Despite being a strong-willed woman in the room, she has a softer, caring side and this is beautifully captured in her exchange with Austin, the young aid played by Nathan Stewart-Jarett, as she tries to sooth his fears: “The secret is to not take anything too seriously, all of this is just temporary… It is all cyclical. First nuclear becomes the big danger, then climate change, then birdflu, then cancer, then islam, then AIDS and then nuclear. Every pantomime needs a villain… All of them scare the shit out of me; truth is we should be frightened of everything.”
Gary, played by Ben Chaplin, hides a secret from his team. His bravado masks a primal fear but with learned skill he craftily hides behind big gestures. He is weirdly fascinating and acts as a catalyst for snow-balling debate and candid exchanges. Whilst to some his approach may seem annoying, he too aches and in a moment of fragility admits, “Being needed is very tiring.”
“Being needed is very tiring.”
Phoebe Fox adds a bit of sexual tension with her character Kate, which helps to round off the sheer magnitude of emotions filling the room. Adeel Akhtar, who plays Mo, is an unsung character whose cultural affiliation to the ensuing conflict leaves him torn between his cultural identity and the nation he serves. His realization that his cousin could be in harm’s way highlights just how small the world is and how interconnected we’ve all become.
Antony Sher plays David, the fastidious representative of the Treasury who thrives in facts. Frustrated by the speed with which decisions need to be made, the lack of data and chaos of the scenario, he is seemingly always on the brink of falling apart. However it is from this unsuspecting character that the definitive pearl of wisdom comes.
With a simple yet effective score and cinematography which beautifully documents the ensuing emotional chaos, this film is world class. A masterpiece of words whose impact does not come from CGI explosions but the emotional explosion of eight individuals who have simply been asked to play this game. The ultimate social experiment, it deals with questions of ethics, of right and wrong and responsibility.
War book takes us behind the scenes and into the darkest corners of Westminster where life and death decisions are made by people who are no less afraid than you or I but who are brave enough to make those decisions so that we don’t have to. Philippa bluntly frames this noticing how “We all get fucked in the service of our country and yet we smile while they do it…”
At last, at the end of three days of tiresome debate and a true war of ideas and ideals, the final vote comes to pass. Round the table we go, now a ritual, a cycle of discourse and negotiation. The choice is simple: Aye or Nay. Three letters, one syllable, a global result.
Sic transit Gloria mundi – Thus passes the glory of the world…
This article originally appeared on Candid Magazine http://www.candidmagazine.com/warbook/