To anyone brought up on the TV series, or who remembers Lassie's recent film incarnations, another version of the collie's story may seem redundant. But by remaining true to the spirit of the source novel, writer-director Charles Sturridge has fashioned a surprisingly sturdy family adventure, one that should appeal to parents as well as children.
Eric Knight turned his short story into the novel Lassie Come-Home in 1940. The first screen version came from MGM in 1943, followed by movies and TV shows that gradually watered down the collie's background while turning her into a sort of superheroine. This film returns to Knight's original setting, a Yorkshire mining village just before the start of World War II. With coal production down and layoffs imminent, Sam Carraclough (John Lynch) is forced to sell his son Joe's (Jonathan Mason) pet collie Lassie to the local Duke (Peter O'Toole), who plans to train her for his granddaughter Cilla (Hester Odgers).
But Lassie refuses to stay on the Duke's estate, despite efforts by the brutish kennel master (Steve Pemberton) to pen her in. Even when the Duke takes Lassie to his manor in northern Scotland, the collie escapes and heads back home. She faces a journey over highlands, moors and lochs, dodging the Duke's pursuers as well as angry farmers, dogcatchers and poachers. Her adventures are contrasted with young Joe's sense of loss and with Cilla's attempts to adjust to a harsh new life at boarding school.
Sturridge adds some unforced humor to a few scenes, but what's striking about this Lassie is its uncompromising vision of life in Great Britain during the late Depression years. Unemployment, poverty and illness are givens. Even the aristocrats seem to be aware that their years of privilege are ending. And with the looming war, death is a constant presence. The dour context makes Lassie's perseverance all that more inspiring, and also heightens the impact of the lighter moments.
Standouts in the uniformly impressive cast include Lynch's strict but sympathetic father and Kelly Macdonald as an impassioned Glaswegian. O'Toole grasps all the layers of his character with disarming ease. As a mother forced into difficult choices, Samantha Morton shows heartbreaking strength and sensitivity in a role that could easily have turned maudlin.
As children who fall in love with Lassie, both Jonathan Mason and Hester Odgers give impressively natural performances. So do the various dogs who appear as Lassie, even though collies are better known for looks than brains. Howard Atherton's cinematography makes excellent use of locations in Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man, complemented nicely by a sympathetic score by Adrian Johnston.
Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of this Lassie is that it treats its viewers, both young and old, with respect. Sturridge tells the story is a straightforward manner, without the ironic winks and nudges that infect so many children's films. With its hard edges and tender heart, Lassie is an utterly beguiling success.