Dir/scr: Charles Sturridge. UK-Ire-Fr-US 2005.
Hansomely crafted, full of lively performancesfrom both animals and humans, and with far more satirical bite than might havebeen expected, Charles Sturridge's Lassie is a richlysatisfying affair.
In drawing his inspirationdirectly from Eric Knight's 1938 story, Sturridge hastaken the famous collie away from Hollywood and back to her roots. There islittle false sentimentality or self-mocking kitsch here: Sturridgehas what he clearly feels is a strong story and he tells it straight.
Will Lassie have legs' In aUK Christmas market crowded by big effects-driven spectacles like
However, audiences shouldstill warm to its solid, old fashioned virtues. Kids will enjoy the rousingadventure while their parents will relish the pointed humour.
Whatever the film'sperformance at the British box-office (where it is released by Entertainment),
The Lassie franchise has pedigree (Fred Wilcox's Lassie Come Home was a smash hit for MGM in 1943 and helped make astar of Elizabeth Taylor.) Distributors will therefore be able to takeadvantage of a strong recognition factor. Moreover, as the example of Rin Tin Tin underlines, dogs havebeen selling tickets almost since the movies began.
The setting here isYorkshire before the Second World War. It would be pushing it to call Lassie aclass warrior but Sturridge doesn't balk at showingthe glaring social divisions in the England of the era. While miners labour formeagre wages beneath the earth, the toffs are busyhunting foxes and swigging sherry above them.
Sam Carracloughand his wife Sarah (John Lynch and Samantha Morton) are decent, hard-workingfolk who fret over whether they'll have enough money to pay the rent. Their doe-eyed son Joe (Jonathan Mason) isdevoted to their collie Lassie, but when the pit closes, the Carracloughs have no choice but to sell the dog to theeccentric Duke of Rudling (Peter O'Toole in livelyand mischievous form), who wants the animal for his granddaughter Cilla (Hester Odgers).
Lassie keeps on escapingfrom the Duke's kennels but is eventually sent up to Scotland. From here, sheembarks on the epic journey back home.
To keep mawkishness at bay, Sturridge fills the movie with colourful, Dickensian types,with minor characters particularly well drawn.
There is the sadistic dogtrainer Hynes (played with appropriate bombast by British comedian StevePemberton from The League Of Gentlemen). He is forever trying to whip Lassie andbrowbeat the locals. Then, there is the lazy Glaswegian dog catcher played by Gregor Fisher (of Rab C Nesbitt fame).
While they are there largelyfor comic relief, arguably the most affecting part of the film comes whenLassie, close to starvation, is adopted by the diminutive travelling puppeteer Rowlie (Peter Dinklage) and joinsin his Punch and Judy-style performances. Their happy menageis rudely interrupted when Rowlie is attacked by armydeserters roaming through the woods. Lassie does her best to defend him, but heis badly beaten up and his own beloved pug Toots is killed.
Given the nature of thematerial, it's inevitable that a certain saccharine will creep into thestorytelling now and then. However, Sturridgecounterpoints the more lachrymose moments with plenty of comic business. Thereare some cleverly choreographed chase sequences, with Lassie leaving chaos inher wake in a Glasgow courtroom or escaping her pursuers by running across thebacks of a flock of sheep.
Not all of Sturridge's gambits come off (the strange interlude inwhich we encounter the Loch Ness monster is more confusing than droll) but thenarrative unfolds at such a brisk clip that Lassie's stumbles are barelynoticed.
As Sturridgehas shown in his best TV work (notably Brideshead Revisitedand Shackleton),he is a consummate craftsman with an eye for period detail and an ability toconvey emotion, even in costume drama.
His trick here has been tocast the film as strongly as he can and to stay true to his source material.The result is a rarity - a dog movie which no-one need be embarrassed by.
Isle Of Man Film
John Paul Kelly