Focusing on the minutiae of military life in conflict, Tom Petch’s The Patrol eschews the crash, bang and wallop of the genre, but in doing so lacks any impact at all.
Deserted by Dave O’Flanagan
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Written and directed by feature film debutant Tom Petch, The Patrol is an indictment on the deployment of British troops in support of NATO’s mission to reconstruct Southern Afghanistan in 2006. An accomplished short filmmaker and a veteran of the British Army, Petch imbues the film with a palpable sense of authenticity, impressively recreating the sights and sounds of conflict. Ultimately though, it’s a frustrating experience from a clearly talented director – opening with promise and vigour but soon after unravelling into formulaic mediocrity. A weak script and a slavish focus on militaristic detail lends an overly procedural, almost pedestrian tone to the film.
The Patrol centres on an overstretched British Army patrol as they struggle to maintain composure in the face of dwindling supplies and insurgent gunfire. With one soldier critically wounded, Captain William Richardson (Ben Righton) struggles to maintain control of the situation, as well as his men, as each of them question their involvement in the conflict.
The film opens with the stark and desolate Moroccan desert (doubling as Afghanistan), a beautiful wide shot establishing the six-man patrol of the title as their vehicle bobs and weaves between the sandy contours of the landscape. Shortly after, they are embroiled in a firefight with Taliban insurgents, the stillness of dusk punctuated by the loud popping of gunfire and tracers. The first 20 minutes of the film are strong, it’s ambitious and grand in scope. Frustratingly, the film plateaus at this point and spends the following 60 minutes tumbling downhill. Visual flair and attention to detail are insignificant next to a poorly conceived script, and the films fatal flaw is Petch’s floundering script.
In shifting the focus from the heat of battle to the confines of camp, the dialogue between the soldiers saddles more significance, and time after time it’s flat and unbelievable. The cast do their utmost with the dialogue, some faring better than others. Nav Sidhu and Owain Arthur are excellent in their respective roles as Smudge and Taff, the chemistry between them is effortless and the relationship is allowed to breathe. The same can’t be said for almost every other heated or emotional exchange – they lack resonance because they seem baseless and harried, like the moment hasn’t been earned. Ben Righton’s stoic and introspective Captain Richardson fares worst of all with several hamfisted exchanges and an unconvincing voiceover.
The transition between short and feature films can be a hazardous chasm for filmmakers to traverse. Not only does a director generally have to contend with a disparate narrative structure, it’s more of a challenge to develop and maintain character arcs and dramatic tension over the course of a feature length running time. Petch’s film bears many of the hallmarks of such a difficult transition, resulting in an inescapable sense that this story would have been much better served in the form that the director is already accustomed to.
The Patrol is released on 7th February 2014 in the UK