TV: Island at War

The six-episode British series Island at War (2004) takes as its subject the German occupation of the Channel Islands during World War II. While it provides a chilling look at what life was like under Nazi oppression, unfortunately it’s not a particularly satisfying or complete story.

It’s set on the fictional island of St. Gregory, a stand-in for Jersey and Guernsey, British-colonized islands which are actually much closer to France than to England. With the fall of France, the British withdraw their military presence from the small, strategically insignificant island. This leaves its populace at the mercy of German invaders, who promptly move in to set up an airbase. The story focuses on three families: the Dorrs (who are involved in local politics), the Mahys (who run a local market), and the Jonas’ (Mr. Jonas is a local constable, and they run a farm together). Incapable of resisting the German invasion, they’re forced to make tough decisions about how to handle the occupation: cooperate, collaborate, or resist?

The local constable Wilf Jonas (Owen Teale) suffers the indignity of losing his position and being forced to work for an occupying officer. For the Dorrs, things are complicated by the return of their son Philip (Sam Heughan), who sneaks onto the island as part of an ill-considered intelligence-gathering mission. His presence ends up putting people at risk, while challenging their patriotism and resolve. Meanwhile, the Mahys — mother Cassie (Saskia Reeves) and daughters Angelique (Joanne Froggatt) and June (Samantha Robinson) — are each forced, in different ways, to cope with the influx of young German men to the island. None of them, however, has it as bad as Zelda Kaye (Louisa Clein), an undocumented Jew who becomes the obsession of a monstrous anti-Semite, Oberleutnant Walker (Colin Jonas).

As a historical glimpse of the horrifying injustice of living under a Nazi bootheel, Island at War succeeds quite effectively, and one gets the sense this is the German Army on their best behavior in this particular occupation. The production values are high, the acting is fine, and conflict is inherently built into every scene. Unfortunately, there’s a general lack of spark to it: there’s rather a day-in-the-life pace to a scenario that’s full of life-and-death stakes. One would suspect more energy and suspense from a series largely involving ill-fated spy missions, black marketeering, secret fraternization between enemies, and bitter enemies attempting to coexist under impossible circumstances. But Islands at War is curiously buttoned-down, and a little lifeless. Alas, it also feels incomplete; the series ends before the war does, so we never see the islanders delivered from their frustrating circumstances.

It’s certainly a competent and attractive production, and I found it historically interesting, but I probably wouldn’t recommend to anyone who doesn’t already possess an inherent curiosity for the premise.

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