“The Guardians” follows a French farming family during World War I, focusing on its women as they run the show while the men are away at the front. The film, opening Friday at the Vogue Theatre, is an old-fashioned period drama about war, tragedy, love, resilience and female strength and capability, made noteworthy by visual splendor and stellar performances.
Directed and cowritten by Xavier Beauvois (“Of Gods and Men”) and adapted from a 1924 novel by Ernest Perochon, the story opens with a shot of battlefield corpses, driving home the existence of the devastating war that will shape the lives of everyone we’re about to meet.
The drama, which begins in 1915, unfolds in a rural French community, where gray-haired Hortense (Nathalie Baye) and her 30ish daughter, Solange (Laura Smet), are successfully operating their family farm.
They worry about the men in their lives who are off at war: Solange’s husband, Clovis (Olivier Rabourdin), and Hortense’s sons, Constant (Nicolas Giraud) and Georges (Cyril Descours).
Needing another farmhand to help with the harvesting, Hortense hires Francine (Iris Bry), a hardworking 20-year-old orphan.
We follow the women over five years, during which time the war-damaged men visit periodically.
Georges and Francine fall in love, and Hortense, viewing Francine as the product of inferior origins, disapproves. Hortense also sees Francine as a potential spoiler of her plan for Georges to marry Marguerite (Mathilde Viseux), the motherless young woman who lives with the family.
The temporary stationing of American soldiers at the farm thickens the picture for several characters.
Citing the need to keep her family and its long-established traditions solid, Hortense takes action in a way that upends what we’ve come to believe about her moral character.
Covering lots of ground, Beauvois, so intent on advancing smoothly to the end of the plot-ripply story, doesn’t give his characters enough of the humanity-rich intimate moments they deserve.
The romance ranks just so-so in the spark department.
Yet the emotion feels genuine, the story is accessible and the land looks sublime.
Via long shots that show workers sowing, plowing and harvesting crops (the sight of Solange driving a tractor, beaming, is gold), Beauvois absorbs viewers in the rhythms and routines of the characters’ world so vividly and completely that, if you go with his unhurried flow, you won’t want the movie to end.
The pastoral vistas — van Gogh’s Jean-François Millet-inspired paintings were an influence — are exquisite.
Baye, one of France’s screen treasures, is captivating. Her Hortense is a hardship-battered woman who has allowed her narrow concept of how to protect her family to eclipse her capacity for decency.
Newcomer Bry disarmingly conveys hope and goodness as Francine. Her smile at the film’s closure ends it on a perhaps unrealistic, but irresistibly upbeat, note.
Starring: Nathalie Baye, Iris Bry, Laura Smet, Cyril Descours
Written by: Xavier Beauvois, Frederique Moreau, Marie-Julie Maille
Directed by: Xavier Beauvois
Running time: 2 hours, 14 minutes