Michael Morpurgo's other wartime novel gets a fittingly poignant big screen treatment.
Michael Morpurgo is the kind of guy who writes stories made for the big screen. Often studying relationships that have been tested in the face of adversity, his work always feels ripe for adaptation. And yet it’s taken almost 10 years for his much-praised novel, Private Peaceful, to make its journey to celluloid. Most will thank Steven Spielberg for catapulting Morpurgo’s other adored wartime fable, War Horse, into the limelight.
For indeed, this one is cut from much the same cloth. Told from the perspective of Thomas ‘Tommo’ Peaceful (George MacKay) in the midst of the First World War, the film takes us through the moments that have defined his life until now: his school days; his father’s death; his relationship with his brother Charlie (Jack O’Connell) and their friend Molly (Alexandra Roach).
Each episode brings us closer to the present in Flanders Fields, on the eve of the Somme, where Charlie faces a court martial for cowardice. Director Pat O’Connor has taken his cues from the source material, arriving at a film that is unflinching in its account of the genocide of a generation. But this is a story about an individual searching for answers, and Morpurgo’s involvement as executive producer ensures little has been lost in translation.
Like War Horse, the first act unfolds gently, with Molly, placed between the brothers, spicing up the dynamic. When the moment comes, the horrors of war are manifold, but the real enemy is closer to home: military leaders sending execution orders for 'cowardice' from the comfort of their stately homes (á la Paths of Glory); an upper echelon of society exploiting the unquestioning masses below.
"Why would I shoot a German? I’ve never met a German," asks Charlie over dinner. It’s a question that flags up war’s ultimate absurdity and total contravention of humanist ideals. Fans of the novel should be satisfied with O’Connor’s handling of events; Peaceful succeeds by delicately moulding its characters long before war begins – a gambit that pays dividends by the final act.
Spielberg may have captured the cinematic grandeur of the Great War, but O’Connor confronts the real questions about the human heart beating within.
Morpurgo’s wartime novel feels purpose-built for the screen. However, O’Connor did direct The January Man.
The episodic style is effective, with solid turns across the board and a shocking, poignant kicker.
Minor pacing gripes aside, this is a moving tale about humanity’s darkest depths.