Director Xavier Beauvois (Of Gods and Men, 2010) is back again with a beautifully crafted production which tells the story of the women left behind in rural France after the of the majority of men of fighting-age were conscripted to fight in WWI. The Guardians (Les Gardiennes), takes a contemplative, slow paced look at the great war from the perspective of those whose stories are seldom told. Cannes Grand Prix winner Beauvois, offers a simply told and beautifully conveyed account of the devastating events which will eventually lead the way to the emancipation of women throughout Europe. Basing most of the action away from the battle ground, the director offers an alternative war movie, one where the fight takes place at home rather than on the battle field.

Adapted from Ernest Perochon’s 1944 novel, The Guardians spans two years in the lives of the women who inhabit Le Paridier, a family owned working farm run by Hortense (Natalie Baye), a resilient matriarch trying to make ends meet in the absence of her two sons and husband. While her daughter Solange (Laura Smet) does her part in running the farm in the absence of husband Clovis (Olivier Rabourdin), Hortence has to also make do without her school teacher son Constant (Nicolas Giraud), and his younger brother George (Cyril Descours).

In need of some help as the harvest approaches, Hortence hires young farm-hand Francine (played beautifully by Iris Bry), to help with the task at hand. When Francine proves to be more than capable and even indispensable to her new employer, the matriarch agrees to keep her on indefinitely. Saving every penny she earns and being responsible for her own destiny, Francine comes to symbolise female emancipation and strong will. Things however take a turn for the unexpected with the return of Georges, who is on army leave, when the young farmer takes an instant interest in Francine, and the two start a secret courtship unbeknownst to the rest of the family.

Beauvois does an excellent job in conveying a sense of longing between the two lovers and does an even better job in showing the heartbreak felt by those who lost loved ones during those trying times. With long mournful scenes and slow meandering shots, the director forgoes the need for artifice in favour of natural storytelling and beautifully sedate exchanges between his characters. Baye is magnificent as Hortence, her quiet resolve and resilience are depicted with huge expertise and panache.

The Guardians is a stunning production, which while not being entirely without fault, still manages to thrill and move its audience beyond all expectation. Beauvois is faultless in his ability to recreate the past, down to the last thread of every costume and every piece of equipment used on the farm. A genuinely astounding piece of filmmaking which is as beautiful as it is essential.