Cinema | Letters Home

Cinema | Letters Home

Peter Gaskell watches Letters Home, the winner of this year’s Cardiff International Film Festival Best Short Welsh Film Prize

Letters Home was one of three films shown at Cardiff International Film Festival launch night. It’s a tense 22-minute short piece set in the trenches on the eve of the Battle of the Somme. Waiting for their orders to go over the top, three Welsh soldiers consider their future. Their differing attitudes to the probability of survival is served well by the script to build on the tension given by their situation. The only action is their cleaning of their guns and writing letters, the only relief from the claustrophobia, the constant barrage of big guns and boredom are intermittent scenes of loved ones at home, imagined trysts and marriage proposals.

Having tested Letters Home as a stage play at Pontardawe Arts Centre, the producer and director took a bold decision with no previous experience to develop it as a film with a crew of first timers and cast of theatre actors. It has worked not just as a short film but potentially as a pilot for a longer drama. It could conceivably spawn a series, developed with backstory for the main characters who display a dichotomy of views, one of hope to be home soon to pursue matters of the heart, set against resignation to the ultimate pessimism that nobody is going to get out alive. Knowing the outcome makes the forlorn nature of the hope harder to watch.

The tension racks up as the offstage countdown gets them to their feet ready to go over the top. If they are hopeful of a happy ending, we are under no illusions. Emptied of its soldiers, the trench now just displays some packing boxes with The Somme’s grim casualty statistics super-imposed.

The other films also feature the psychological effects of war. Dying Light, also a short, raises the question of whether children should be shielded from understanding its horrors. It’s a well-crafted treatment of the conflict between innocence and experience, ignorance and understanding. Dramatic tension translates from an argument between the mother and grandmother digging vegetables in their idyllic rural location to the discovery by the children of a German pilot who pulls a gun on them after he is shot down in a dogfight overhead. Will he be the ‘bad Nazi’ they had expected?

Landscape of Lies is a London-based thriller ostensibly about a man in a failing marriage whose business is under threat from a gangster wanting to muscle in and take over. It is the impressive cinematography that makes this film so effective, adding cinematic colour to the underlying theme about the effects of war on soldiers. It is gradually revealed that the villain of the piece has become a flashy gangster as a result of being warped by brutal treatment at the hands of his military father, while the more humble protagonist, a veteran of the Iraq war, was able to maintain his integrity despite constant provocation. It was a shame the sound effects often obscured the dialogue.

It bodes well that Cardiff International Film Festival kicked off with such offerings of quality, for its chances also of establishing a dimension for Wales as a showcase for world film, as well as a home for quality film production.  Michael Sheen said it well in endorsing the event for “the opportunity it gives to both welcome films from all around the world and promote our own homegrown films in both English and Welsh language.”