‘The Crimson Field’ Addresses War and the Changing Roles of Women

The Crimson Field may not completely enthrall but it is consistently interesting. For a show without grand ambition, you can say much worse.

It’s worth noting that the BBC has officially announced that the The Crimson Field will not be picked up for a second season. While this news is a bit surprising — for reasons I will share in a moment — it’s far from earth-shattering.

Ever since Downton Abbey’s unprecedented burst onto the pop-culture scene by way of historical-fiction drama, each new British PBS drama must be taken just a little more seriously than before. Sure, Downton Abbey can be quite soap-operish and, at times, downright silly, but it is without a doubt, a part of popular culture and thus important to discuss. While Downton Abbey touches on topical subject such as war and the changing roles of women, The Crimson Field addresses these ideas directly.

The series begins with the arrival of four new nurses to a fictional British field hospital in France during the World War I. These nurses share many of the characteristics we’ve come to expect with melodramatic historical fiction. For one, they are impossibly pretty (although so is nearly every person we meet throughout all six episodes). They also are starkly different, the better to create different character interactions and conflict.

First, and arguably foremost, there is Kitty Trevelyan, played by Oona Chaplin, best known for her role as Rob Stark’s ill-fated wife in Game of Thrones. She is clearly the main character, as well as the feistiest of the new nurses. She is quick to display insubordination when confronted with the harsh authority of Matron Grace Carter (Hermione Norris). Kitty is also harboring a deep secret that unfolds throughout the series, albeit with a bit of a disappointing payoff overall.

Then there’s Flora Marshall (Alice St. Claire), the sweet and innocent nurse who is obviously wildly under-qualified to be nursing men in uniform. While St. Claire does an excellent job of nailing Flora’s clueless naivety, her character becomes tiresome fairly quickly. While her purpose seems to be bringing some levity to what is actually a pretty dark drama, she is overall a two-dimensional character whose story becomes filler at best.

The same cannot be said of Sister Joan Livesey (Suranne Jones), whose story is rife with the most drama of any of the nurses. Her love affair with a German immigrant prior to the outbreak of the war has left her in the unfortunate situation of being in bed with the enemy. This eventually comes to a head with the kind of dire consequences one would expect, and largely represents much of the more important dramatic turns of the series.

That being said, The Crimson Field’s six episodes play out very formulaically. Each episode featuring an in-episode arc that focuses on the trials and tribulations of one or a collection of the many soldiers being nursed in the field hospital. Most of these stories are what would expect, from disabled soldiers learning to cope, to some horrifying cases of PTSD, but they are an intriguing part of the series and are handled well. There are few quality programs with narratives focused solely on the First World War and how it directly affected soldiers, and in this, The Crimson Field is fairly successful.

Worth noting is the lack of any special features or extras on the season one DVD for the Crimson Field. With a subject manner so steeped in history as the First World War, it seems a missed opportunity for the BBC/PBS team. Short featurettes on the events occurring during the time of these fictional events could have given the show more significance, something it desperately needed.

Series one ended with some question marks that will now be left unanswered. The BBC cited finances, airtime, and viewership as reasons for the show’s cancellation. The formula for The Crimson Field did work to keep me consistently interested, if not completely enthralled. Although the stories may not stick with the viewer in the way that many quality television dramas tend to do, both the drama involving each individual nurse as well as the soldiers they treat remain entertaining. For a show without grand dramatic ambitions, the BBC could do worse.

RATING 6 / 10