And Then Come the Nightjars15
2001 was a bad year for farming; it was the year that saw the first outbreak of Foot & Mouth disease in the UK in three decades, which saw millions of livestock get slaughtered.
This debut feature from Paul Robinson takes this event as its backdrop, as a farmer becomes aware of what’s to happen to his livelihood.
Visiting Devon farmer Michael (David Fielder) is vet Jeff (Nigel Hastings). Michael has heard of an outbreak of Foot and Mouth in Essex, and it’s causing concern for a lot of the farming community. Michael reassures him however, as he doesn’t believe they have anything to worry about in their neck of the woods.
The landscape completely changes within a few weeks however, as the disease takes hold up and down the country.
This makes it harder, as a friend, for Michael to have to return to Jeff’s farm, tasked with having to cull his ‘girls’, thus putting a heavy burden on their friendship.
Not only is Robinson making his directorial debut, but so his Bea Roberts as its writer, with a screenplay based on her 2014 award-winning play.
Although the backdrop concerns a countrywide viral disease effecting livestock, it’s a more intimate affair, concerning the relationship of these two men. It is essentially a two hander brought from stage to screen, which is a move that can sometimes struggle to make the transition. Robinson certainly helps the cause by having the scenic locale play its part; there is only so much work stage scenery can do, but when you have the real deal – a green, plush landscape – it gives this insular relationship greater context, amplifying their close relationship against stunning rolling hills that never seem to end.
The director also gets great performances from his two male leads, especially from Fielder whose character Michael is a more bold and brash proposition.
It s a film then where its main theme is loss; not only is farmer Michael coming to terms with the loss of his cows, but his wife Sheila died not so long ago, leaving him to run the farm and home on his own. Jeff is also going through his own problems, mostly marital, with reconciliation of any kind looking very implausible, with a young daughter involved too.
Although the friendship is quite tender in places, it does feel one that is quite unlikely to happen, with the two men coming from completely different worlds. They feel an odd match, but Roberts does well with her dialogue to keep it fairly believable. Although there is a sense that the farmer would be less forgiving to the vet considering his often prickly personality towards him, and that the scenario would have been far more testing than presented here.
Still, Robinson does well in making it feel far from just a filmed version of a stage production, injecting it with a personality all of its own.
There’s an awkwardness during a wedding reception, held on the farm, where the film only had enough money to clear one song to use – which was sadly ‘Ces’t La Vie’ by B*Witched – with the others used all being license-free generic noise that should legally never be played out loud, never mind at a wedding, that somehow manages to make the B*Witched track sound like a real anthem. But for a low budget film such as this, it’s understandable. Perhaps they should have gone the route of a tribute band, or dubious wedding singer, rather than this.
The backdrop of the Foot and Mouth outbreak is just that, which is a disappointment, as we don’t really witness the devastation to the farmer that you would expect from such an ordeal, with it brushed over all too quickly.
The story jumps in places too, quite a few years ahead – with Jeff’s daughter now the young woman being married, for instance – with neither character seemingly aging, which is a little jarring. But again, its humble budget probably played a part in the make-up department. These jumps do see the characters further down the road, but in a place that doesn’t ring true, giving it an almost ironic Steptoe & Son twist.
Although the two lead roles don’t feel as if they should gel as well as they do on screen, And Then the Nightjars is a confident debut from both director and writer, offering a tale with real warmth and heart.