At first sight, The Trench appears to have dodged the draft. After the Hollywood double-whammy of Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, you have to wonder what yet another war film can offer: nothing to compare with the technical virtuosity and horror of Spielberg's epic; or the grandeur of Terry Malick's more subtle effort. Surely novelist William Boyd's directorial debut is fated to fire blanks?
There's no doubt that when you're trying to recreate war, cash counts, and Boyd's ambition - to accurately depict the claustrophobic hell of the trenches - is shot in the foot by poor production design. Aside from two brief forays into No Man's Land, the action never moves outside the dug-out maze. But it's impossible to ignore the fact that this is a studio trench, without any semblance of muck or cold. Add the way the film is shot - clean, crisp and very, very flat - and there's no way audiences can buy it.
However, there are a couple of "live ones" in the barrel here, notably Boyd's bright young cast. First up there's Nicholls, a successful deserter from TV Soap Land (he played brain-troubled heart-throb Joe Wicks in EastEnders), who perfectly captures the naïveté of the boys - and they were boys - who signed up for the not-so-Great War. Then there's James D'Arcy, as a more cynical recruit, and Danny Dyer, who adopts the same frantic mode he took as pill-popper Moff in Human Traffic. Finally, presiding over all of them, is the wonderful Daniel Craig (Love Is The Devil, Elizabeth), grittily believable as the hardened sergeant, the only one with any idea of what's really going on.
Also, the rare moments of blood-shed are tactically astute, helping to build tension and fear as the attack approaches. There were 60,000 dead or wounded on the first day of the Somme. And when Boyd's soldiers march up to die, the film finally, and surprisingly, packs quite a punch.
There's no escaping the TV-feel of this movie: William Boyd is clearly more at home behind a word processor than a camera. But the perceptive script and sensitive acting lend it some interest, certainly for war-movie buffs and talent-spotters.