Film Review: Private Peaceful

This predictable wartime drama, based on the book by 'War Horse' author Michael Morpurgo, is redeemed somewhat by good performances and the craftsmanship of veteran director Pat O'Connor.

Private Peaceful begins in World War I-era Belgium with the court martial of Tommo Peaceful (George MacKay), a British soldier accused of desertion. The night before he is to be executed, Tommo reflects on his boyhood spent on an estate in Devon where his father was a gamekeeper.

In the long flashback sequences, which alternate with the film’s “present,” Tommo remembers his closest friend, his older brother Charlie (Jack O’Connell of the upcoming Unbreakable). Charlie saw him through his first day at school, and later assuaged the guilt he felt as an adolescent over the manner of their father’s death. Charlie also eased Tommo into farm work when the boys had to help their mother support the family. Then, as will happen with brothers, the two fell in love with the same girl.

An independently produced film, Private Peaceful is based on the novel of the same name by War Horse author Michael Morpurgo. Producer Simon Reade wrote the screenplay and the author served as executive producer, which left veteran director Pat O’Connor with the task of bringing their clichéd characters to life. Best-known for Dancing at Lughnasa (1998), O’Connor’s métier is working with young actors. He directed Joaquin Phoenix in his breakout role in Inventing the Abbotts (1997) opposite Liv Tyler, then a budding star. Colin Firth appeared in O’Connor’s A Month in the Country (1987), the actor’s third screen appearance, yet the first to display his dramatic range. John Lynch (The Secret of Roan Inish), who brings dimension to the thankless role of the cruel martinet in Private Peaceful, made his cinematic debut at 19 in the Irish director’s Cal (1984), opposite Helen Mirren.

Every performance in this wartime drama apparently benefitted from O’Connor’s direction, but especially that of MacKay (Defiance), 21 years of age during production, in whose demeanor an undercurrent of tragedy is consistently felt. Nevertheless, neither O’Connor, nor the practiced eye of his longtime collaborator, DP Jerzy Zielisnksi (Washington Square), nor the beautiful score by Rachel Portman (Belle), could repair the movie’s turgid plot, which should never have begun with the court martial. While the story quickly turns, after the opening scene, to Tommo’s childhood at home with Charlie, their eldest brother Big Joe and their affectionate parents, knowing his fate from the start strips the coming-of-age story of what little mystery it possesses, and Tommo’s character of the realization of his underlying pathos. Its source is his role in James Peaceful’s death.

When a new gamekeeper is hired, the boys quickly become enamored with his pretty daughter Molly (Izzy Meikle-Small as a girl). As an adult (Alexandra Roach), she is courted by Tommo and Charlie. The triangle causes the brothers to become estranged, especially after Tommo discovers that Charlie’s relationship with Molly is eclipsing his own amour. That is when, predictably, Tommo joins the army, and not long afterward Charlie leaves his pregnant wife in order to protect his brother. Miraculously, the brothers end up in the same troop, along with others from their village. Tacked onto this improbable course of events is the screenwriter’s attempts at gravitas, which include a condemnation of Britain’s military policies in a war that ended nearly a century ago. While in the novel these tangents may have served some purpose, in the movie they feel didactic and distract the audience from the human drama.

It seems only O’Connor knows what Private Peaceful is about, and it is not war, nor is it the gilded past, but rather the boy for whom the movie is named. Tommo is so like “tommy,” the sobriquet for all British soldiers, especially during World War I, that we may see him as Everyboy whose innocence is lost on the battlefield, rather than in the more usual and “peaceful” way, in the arms of a first love. Throughout the movie, O’Connor keeps us centered, as much as he can given the diffuse screenplay, on Tommo’s emotions, but despite his craftsmanship Private Peaceful is little more than a hard-luck story.

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