Historical films often use their timeframes as an excuse to pile on the gauze, burying the drama and relatable characters beneath mounds of hazy romanticism. The sedately riveting The Guardians, however, refuses to gussy up its surroundings in the slightest, depicting WWI-era Life on the Farm with a near-to-total lack of nostalgia. (Note: Old-timey tractors were both extremely cool, and absolutely terrifying.) Although the pacing may be … well, let’s say deliberate, the slow-detonating conflicts and a magnificent performance by newcomer Iris Bry are enough to keep you glued.
Based on a novel by Ernest Perochon, the plot follows an increasingly fractured family in the French countryside, with the women giving their all to keep the farm running while waiting for their sons and husbands to return from The Front. When the youngest son falls for the household’s newest servant (Bry) while on leave, the carefully maintained layers of civility begin to peel away.
Director/co-writer Xavier Beauvois (Of Gods and Men) tends to favor slow camera pans over a series of remarkable faces, while trusting in his performers—yes, even the livestock—to fill in the blanks. Which they do, to often devastating effect. (A grieving family member’s reaction shot is somehow even more apocalyptic when played out at what feels like half speed.) While the entire cast is on point throughout, however, what really makes The Guardians lodge in the memory is the debut performance of Bry, whose long-suffering, wonderfully alive presence gives this occasionally meandering film a compelling, combustible engine. Her approximately 34-stage nonverbal reaction while remembering a romantic tryst is the sort of thing that movies are made of, really.