Although already filmed three times in the sound era, Black Beauty has never been put onscreen faithfully or well, a situation partially remedied by this affecting, rather grave rendition of the children’s perennial. Debuting director Caroline Thompson, who penned The Secret Garden, has brought considerable feeling and care to this story of a fine horse’s often difficult life in Victorian England.
Anna Sewell’s original motivation in writing the 1877 book was to bring to light the cruel treatment of horses prevalent in the England of her day. Work’s other most notable feature is its first-person narration from the point of view of Black Beauty, which soon proves charming and lends the film what world view it has.
Like an old man sitting under a tree ruminating about his long life, an aged Black Beauty (voiced enthusiastically with a light Brit accent by Alan Cumming) casts a look back to his idyllic youth on a gorgeous country estate. Illness comes, as does a horrible stable fire, but these are more easily survived than life under his aristocratic new owners. Black Beauty becomes a horse for rent and, later, a taxi horse in darkest working-class London.
By closely following the book, Thompson has had to face its extremely episodic nature, a problem that has not entirely been surmounted either in the scripting or the editing.
Demands on the performers are moderate, although David Thewlis weighs in sympathetically as Black Beauty’s driver and ’60s British film icons Peter Cook and Eleanor Bron are welcome presences as the snooty aristocrats.