Here’s a film I’ve watched a couple of times since its’ release but never really thought much of if I’m honest. On the face of it, it’s a simple little story covering the same basic ground that a great many other Great War Films cover and without much fanfare or points of difference. It’s based on a book for older children written by Author Michael Morpurgo and the first thing to note is that this is Morpurgo’s second Great War Film having had his book, and subsequent stage play ‘War Horse’ getting the Spielberg treatment the previous year.
There are plenty of similarities between the stories and the films. They are both set in similar areas of the country or at least the accents are roughly Devonian, they are both aimed at an ‘Older Children/Young Adult’ audience and they both have a very British feel to them. The main difference between the films is the money that’s been spent on them. ‘War Horse’ got the full Hollywood treatment, a re-write by proper screenwriters, a slightly cartoony production design/cinematography and millions of dollars in the marketing kitty. By comparison ‘Private Peaceful’ was released with a wheeze and a whimper having been directed by someone who’d last directed a film 11 years previously.
There’s an almost ensemble cast featuring Richard Griffiths in his last credited appearance, Francis De La Tour (Miss Jones from Rising Damp), George MacKay from Sunshine on Leith, Alexandra Roach from Hunderby and occasion tabloid bad boy Jack O’Connell. The two leads put on a decent enough show with the slightly staid lines they have in front of them. The weakest links in the cast list are the kids playing the young Peaceful boys, one of whom is a Fiennes as it happens, Hero Fiennes. Give it a few years eh Hero. Everyone else does a fair old job of it. Griffiths and De La Tour have some history together having shared the camera on several occasions and Alexandra Roach plays a brilliant dewy eyed country girl.
The basic plot of the film follows the usual path for these things. There’s a love triangle, there’s an underage boy soldier being recruited by a blind eye turning Recruitment Officer, there’s a bastard Drill Sergeant, an upper class snob with an utter indifference to the working class he lords it over. Basically there’s nothing new on display, but what we do have is a well researched story from writer Morpurgo. He clearly knows his stuff and the era is portrayed with an understanding of the social mores of the time.
There are all the story elements I’ve come to expect in a Great War Film. Class struggle, infighting between the ranks, a couple of attacking through no mans’ land scenes. These in particular are handled quite well considering the target audience. We don’t see gore but there is certainly death. The scenes are reasonably small scale in nature but done with enough realism so as not to look laughable. There’s gas and mental health issues on show too. Good stuff.
The film does have an underlying layer of melancholy which runs through it like a thin seam of black coal and which I only really noticed with hindsight. It all appears quite simply written and straightforward while you’re watching it but thinking back to it now there’s not much good stuff happening to the characters. Whether it’s a death in the family, an impromptu pregnancy, the falling out of the two leads, a bastard Drill Sergeant or, indeed, any of the last 15 or so minutes there’s not much to make you smile.
I think that realisation has helped me to change my opinion of this film. Whereas when I started writing this review, just a few short paragraphs ago, I thought my conclusion would be along the lines of ‘Decent enough, low budget film but maybe a bit ‘Vanilla’ for my tastes’. I now think what I want to write is that this is a film that’s managed to tell a dark and honest, realish account of the effects of the Great War on an ordinary British family without needing to resort to becoming a video nasty.
Overall it’s still a simple story with nothing new but what it does it does well. The small budget probably works in the films favour because where ‘War Horse’ deserved and craved a large scale re-telling ‘Private Peaceful’ is a lot more personal and small-scale in its’ scope. The cast put in a fair days work and the knowledge of the era from writer Morpurgo give it a sense of honesty which must be applauded. Basically it’s okay, not great, nothing bad, just okay. Clicky Clicky and you can own it.