Monday, October 27, 2014

Private Peaceful: Brothers in Arms

When two movie brothers go off to war, it is a lead pipe cinch one of them is not coming back. The questions will be which one and under what circumstances. The answers will be revealed in a series of flashbacks throughout Pat O’Connor’s WWI drama, Private Peaceful (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Adapted from the novel by War Horse author Michael Morpurgo, Private will incorporate the themes of Paths of Glory and Saving Private Ryan within trenches of Flanders, but Simon Reade’s screenplay scrupulously takes its time establishing the Peaceful family dynamics before reaching that point. Charlie Peaceful is the older, brasher brother, who always looked out for the shier, more sensitive Thomas “Tommo” Peaceful. Poor Tommo will become increasingly withdrawn, first blaming himself for the death of their gamekeeper father and then watching Charlie marry Molly Monks, the childhood friend they both love, after getting her in a family way.

Initially, Tommo Peaceful volunteers as a way of escaping his broken heart, but he quickly learns the bitter realities of trench fighting and chemical warfare. Soon his brother enlists, despite his parental obligations, in order to keep Tommo alive. Naturally, Charlie Peaceful clashes badly with the gung ho Sgt. Hanley, ultimately leading to the court martial seen in deliberately cagey snippets throughout the film.

The notion that the officers and war boosters were blithely anticipating previous wars is hardly a new insight, but Private adds a clumsy element of class warfare in the person of the corpulent Colonel, who owns the estate employing the Peacefuls’ father and subsequently exploiting the Peaceful mother and brothers. “Guns and horses, that’s how we beat the Boers,” he blusters. As great as the late Richard Griffiths was (we prefer to remember him in Withnail & I rather than Harry Potter), his turn as the Colonel is total caricature.

On the other hand, the fraternal drama is rather honest stuff, quite nicely turned by two of the UK’s fastest rising stars. Private technically predates ’71 and For Those in Peril, clearly showing why Yann Demange picked Jack O’Connell as the young face of war’s chaos in the former, while George MacKay demonstrates an affinity for guilt-tormented brothers that would also manifest in the latter.

In fact, O’Connell is considerably more dynamic here than he is convincingly portraying Demange’s overwhelmed fresh recruit. Indeed, it is the young cast members who carry Private, including the smaller supporting players, such as Eline Powell, who is terrific as Anna, Tommo’s potential French love interest.

While it lacks the tragic sweep of Galipoli, Private is an effectively micro-focused period anti-war film that should be considered a cut or two above standard PBS Masterpiece programming. O’Connor balances the familial drama with the horrors of war well enough in the third act, but tarries somewhat in the mid-section devoted to the difficult days following the senior Peaceful’s death. Earnest and respectable, Peaceful Private is recommended on balance for fans of British literary adaptations when it opens this Friday (10/31) in New York at the AMC Empire.