'Private Peaceful': Film Review

Private Peaceful Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Goldcrest Films/BBC Worldwide North America

Private Peaceful Still - H 2014

Strong performances and a vivid evocation of its wartime milieu highlight this stirring British drama

This adaptation of a young-adult novel by "War Horse" author Michael Morpurgo concerns the relationship between two English brothers fighting in World War I

The massive success of both the stage and screen versions of War Horse has no doubt spurred the belated U.S. theatrical release of a screen adaptation of another World War I-themed, young-adult novel by Michael Morpurgo. Although lacking the sweeping emotionalism and expensive production values of its cinematic predecessor, Private Peaceful emerges as a powerful anti-war drama that particularly spotlights the unfair treatment afforded British soldiers, 306 of whom were executed for various offenses.

Previously adapted by screenwriter Simon Reade into a BBC radio drama and an acclaimed one-person stage play, the story concerns teenage Tommo Peaceful (George Mackay) and his older brother Charlie (Jack O'Connell, soon to be seen in the highly anticipated Unbroken), growing up in rural Devon, England. Their father having died in an unfortunate accident, they're being raised by their mother Hazel (Maxine Peake), who's forced to contend with the whims of her insensitive landowner employer (Richard Griffiths of Harry Potter and The History Boys fame in his final screen role).

The brothers' loving relationship is sorely tested by the romantic triangle that develops between them and local girl Molly (Alexandra Roach). Although Tommo is deeply in love with her, she's more drawn to his older brother and marries him after she becomes pregnant.

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When war breaks outs Tommo lies about his age and eagerly enlists, while Charlie remains behind with his new bride. But his loyalty to his sibling eventually causes him to join the army's ranks and desperately search for him through the killing fields of Flanders. The most dramatic element of the storyline related in flashbacks deals with one of them, not identified until shortly before the film's conclusion, facing military justice in the form of a firing squad.

While dealing with familiar wartime story tropes — including the tragic death of a beautiful young woman who takes a shine to Tommo and the harsh treatment afforded the young soldiers by their brutal sergeant (John Lynch)—the film delivers an evocative portrait of its early twentieth century, rural England milieu. Among the other interesting characters on display are the Peaceful boys' mentally-challenged older brother, Big Joe (Kyle Summercorn) and a local busybody, the aptly named Grandma Wolf (Frances de la Tour).

Working with an obviously limited budget (and shooting on 16mm no less), director Pat O'Connor (Dancing at Lughnasa) achieves a lot with a little, although the results inevitably have the feel of the sort of television production which could wind up being shown on Masterpiece Theater.

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Adding greatly to the overall impact are the strong performances by the three leads, with O'Connell displaying the charisma that seems destined to propel him to screen stardom, Mackay delivering a sensitive turn as the young man determined to go to war, and Roach radiant as the love interest for both brothers.

Production: Fluidity Films
Cast: Jack O'Connell, George Mackay, Alexandra Roach, Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, John Lynch, Maxine Peake
Director: Pat O'Connor
Screenwriter: Simon Reade
Producers: Simon Reade, Guy de Beaujeu
Executive producers: Michael Morpurgo, Jack Bowyer, Joanne Podmore, Rhys David Thomas, Rhian Williams
Director of photography: Jerzy Zielisnksi
Production designer: Adrian Smith
Editor: Humphrey Dixon
Costume designer: Anushia Nieradzik
Composer: Rachel Portman
Casting: Gemma Hancock, Sam Stevenson

No rating, 103 min.