Written and directed by former British Army soldier Tom Petch, ‘The Patrol’ is the first British film to be produced about the Afghan conflict. Constructed with a tremendous air of authenticity and honesty, for the most part it avoids over-dramatics and simply documents the monotony and hardships for British soldiers entrenched in the barren dessert. A small army patrol is deployed in the heart of Helmand Province but, poorly supplied with faltering equipment, no clear directions and ever-increasing friction and in-fighting, Sergeant Campbell (Nicholas Beveney) struggles to keep control of his men and their dwindling spirits.
This film has an incredibly still and calm atmosphere, permitting an intimacy with the close-knit ensemble cast that is reminiscent of a theatre production, the men and dialogue taking centre stage against the vacant backdrop of Helmand. The starkness of the bleached landscape is amplified by a yearning and groaning score that punctuates the oppressive quiet with a visceral foreboding – setting up the infrequent gunfire and action with an intense sense of danger.
It’s a confident debut effort that utilises the limitations of budget to great effect – the nothingness of Helmand almost becomes a character in itself, and the confident decision never to show the Taliban (or “Terry”), or even other soldiers, reinforces our empathy with the little group and the clear futility of their work. Who are they fighting with? Who are they fighting against? Isolated and undersupplied, they themselves never really know. It may not break any new ground in subject matter or plot – soldiers disillusioned with war and a sergeant struggling to keep them together is an often told story – but where it excels is with this oppressively bleak atmosphere.
Visually ‘The Patrol’ is pretty uninspired, failing to bring much invention or flavour to a dusty landscape moviegoers are overly familiar with, and – despite some grand establishing shots taking in the endless scorched hills – it feels a little small screen in scale. Occasional lapses into sub-par acting or clunky dialogue stop it really breaking away from this televisual feeling, but this is nitpicking in what all round is a well accomplished feature.
A palpable sense of camaraderie is established between all the – largely unknown – cast who share some wonderful chemistry, making their hopeless struggle every bit as engaging as it should be. The performances would be improved by feeling a little more natural at times considering the authentic approach Petch is aiming for, but this is perhaps down to the dialogue more than anything else. When it’s focused on the ins-and-outs of war and the technical jargon, ‘The Patrol’ works perfectly (and mercifully doesn’t condescend or over-explain itself), but when it verges into more emotional territory it’s not quite as successful. Filmmaking is a learning process and Petch clearly has a talent for capturing this type of masculine material, at present just lacking a degree of refinement on its more human side. A film of great promise, counterpointing the searing physical and emotional intensity of war against its maddening tedium.
[ 2013 — Dir: Tom Petch — 85 mins — 15 cert — IMDb ]
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