Ideas are seldom a bad thing. Many films can barely scrape half of one together and somehow have a box office hit – by contrast Reg Travis has condensed about a thousand into this ambitious debut feature.
At any given point Joy Division could be described as a WWII melodrama, a Cold War espionage thriller or a kitchen sink romance to a backdrop of Bohemian sixties counter culture. The problem is, like a pulp science book on ‘the history of everything’ or ‘the universe for dummies’, it covers much but reveals little.
Centred around the various incarnations of Tom (Ed Stoppard), the story tracks a young mans quest for identity. As a pubescent youth in 40’s Germany, he finds his first love with a nubile, brainwashed Nazi. Yet, before they have time to smash a parade of Jewish bakeries, he is whisked away to fight on the Eastern Front; fleeing the advancing Soviets the young soldier is exposed to the full barbarism of war and harrowing experiences that he can never fully recover from.
Fast forward seventeen years and Tom has taken a giant sized personality U-turn. As an elite KGB agent, he is deployed to Great Britain. It is here, in between trying to smash a spy ring, that Tom finally finds love and a sense of belonging with the curvaceous art student (Michelle Gayle) and her middle class, hippie pals.
Taken on their own, each idea is entertaining enough. The main problem is the way the film not only covers an entire history syllabus but also flits between eras like a channel surfing insomniac with attention deficit disorder. There simply isn’t enough time for chemistry between Stoppard and Gayle. For a supposedly character forming encounter all we get are a few lines of idle chat and token scenes of extras dancing to be-bop. Gayle isn’t particularly bad, it’s just that she probably had more lines when she was in Grange Hill.
Similarly the espionage thread lacks any of the essential, screw turning tension. With barely enough plot space to open a poisoned tipped umbrella, all of the clandestine meetings and secret codes just seem slightly bewildering. This is a particularly frustrating given Bernard Hill’s compelling depiction of a disillusioned spy. It makes you want to get the camera man in a head lock and scream, ‘can’t we just focus on this for a bit?’
In spite of this, the war scenes are nothing short of spectacular. Authentic Soviet tanks rolling though a wintry blood bath of hopeless grenade charging insanity are every bit as shell shocking as the likes of Saving Private Ryan. Unfortunately, these glorious scenes can’t hide the missing plot.