Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Brothers & lovers in WWI: Pat O'Connor's film of Michael Morpurgo's novel, PRIVATE PEACEFUL

A lovely example of the kind of movie-making we don't see all that often, PRIVATE PEACEFUL is a British film set about 100 years back during the lead-up to World War I that holds a mirror to life among the titled gentry, as well as those who labored for them. As my spouse noted about halfway along, "This makes a nice antidote to Downton Abbey." Indeed. In fact, I don't think I noticed a single "overheard conversation" in the entire film.

As directed by veteran filmmaker Pat O'Connor (shown at right), with a screenplay written by Michael Morpurgo, the author of the novel on which the film is based, Private Peaceful -- surely an ironic title, except that the family name of the central characters is Peaceful -- the movie is old-fashioned in a good sense: It tells a easy-to-follow story well, with good dialog and fine performances and visuals that do all they should to carry us along and make the trip a worthwhile and often quite beautiful one. We spend most of the film in the lush British countryside on the estate of a nasty, entitled Colonel (the last performance caught on film from the late, rotund actor Richard Griffiths, below) who rules with a stupid iron hand, has an ailing wife and makes eyes at Frances de la Tour (shown at bottom) -- who plays either the aunt or grandmother of the Peaceful family (I was never quite sure which).

The film begins with a Court Martial of one of the Peaceful brothers, Charlie and Tommo, during the War, and then cuts back to their childhood to tell us the story of the pair -- played as children by Hero Fiennes-Tiffin and Samuel Bottomley, shown respectively, left to right, below --

and the young girl -- Izzy Meikle-Small, shown below, right, tugging -- that both boys fall in love with almost upon meeting her.

Quite soon, we're with the adult version of the brothers, now played by the suddenly ubiquitous Jack O' Connell (below, left, of 300: Rise of an Empire and Starred Up) and George MacKay (below, right, of Pride and For Those in Peril), both of whom do a fine job in delineating character and growth.

Maxine Peak (below, from Silk, Run & Jump) plays the Peaceful mom, Hazel, and does her usual commendable job or providing love, reassurance and a strong, female figure.

O'Connor and Morpurgo easily weave past and present into the story so that we're back and forth on the battle field, or in military prison, or home with the family as the story unfolds. The tale is full of beauty and sadness, and although I'm told that Morpurgo wrote this as a young adult novel, the movie does not seem skewed to that age-range at all. It is simply adult. (That's John Lynch, below, who plays the Peacefuls' -- as well as the viewer's -- military bête noire.)

The themes of love of family and country, of the waste of war, and the unfair divisions produced by class are all brought to the fore. Toward the end  the movie seems to deliberately obfuscate identity -- which brother is actually being court-martialed. Or are both? -- and whether this is due to faulty editing or the filmmaker's attempt to show us that, where family love is concerned, everyone is equal, I'm not sure.

In any case, this confusion finally comes clear, and the movie ends as a strong and moving anti-war/anti-class tale. Made in 2012, it has taken the film some time to reach these shores, but Private Peaceful -- released through BBC Worldwide North America, and running 103 minutes -- opens this Friday, October 31 in New York City (at the AMC Empire 25) and in Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Playhouse 7 and will expand to other markets as the weeks and months pass.

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