Vet British producer Jeremy Thomas makes a creditable directorial debut with “All the Little Animals,” a drama about an outcast teen that draws simultaneously on the pastoral and eccentric traditions in English storytelling. Boosted by a fine character turn from John Hurt, pic is modest in ambition and accomplishment, and its oddball, unclassifiable nature will make it difficult to market. Another handicap is a title that makes the film sound like something along the lines of “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” which it decidedly is not.
Overly melodramatic at its worst but disarmingly offbeat at its best, this nicely mounted adaptation of the late Walker Hamilton’s novel centers on an emotionally damaged boy’s search for a place in the world within an animal rights/”civilization”-vs.-nature context. Story’s key psychological revelations and violent confrontations smack of the routine and familiar, but the many sequences on the road and in the countryside convey a quiet, appealing sensitivity to life on the unpopulated fringes of society.
Related by the young fellow in retrospect, tale lays out the grim repercussions of his mother’s premature death on Bobby (Christian Bale), a misfit from a well-to-do family. Bobby seems a bit slow, with the maturity of someone perhaps half his late-teens age, the result of a head injury in a childhood auto accident. His stepfather, De Winter (Daniel Benzali), whom Bobby calls “The Fat,” is a stern, sinister figure who considers his charge “subnormal” and has one aim only: to induce Bobby to sign over complete ownership in the family department store, then put him away for good.
Sniffing out this nefarious scheme isn’t too tough even for Bobby, thanks to the one-dimensional evil with which the Fat is written and acted, so the boy hits the road and hitches a couple of rides that get him to Cornwall, in the distant west of England. Trip comes to an abrupt halt, however, when Bobby creates a wreck trying to prevent the lorry driver from deliberately running over a fox on the road. The crash kills the driver, but the first person Bobby encounters at the scene, a Mr. Summers (Hurt), blithely ignores the human body in favor of a rabbit that got hit instead of the fox.
As Summers takes over, story enters its most interesting stretch. Summers is not only a hermit par excellence, but an antisocial extremist of the first order. “People are of no value at all as far as I’m concerned,” the aging coot tells Bobby, as he begins making his daily rounds collecting and burying the remains of road kill and other critter casualties. Only grudgingly welcoming, Summers has little choice but to let Bobby stay at his humble home, a shack without electricity or other modern amenities. But he’s surprised at Bobby’s avid embrace of his attitudes and vocation, and takes the boy under his wing.
Once they’ve shared numerous small adventures, played both for comic and suspenseful effect, Summers reveals the self-incriminating story of his criminal past that led to his isolation. Bobby accepts it, as well as the man’s insistence that they return to London to confront the Fat and settle matters with him once and for all. Melodramatic conclusion, with the Fat running amok in the countryside, borders on grotesquerie.
Still, the central section is solid, and Thomas — whose father, Ralph Thomas, was a prominent British director — shows a sure hand behind the camera, staging the action fluently and evincing a strong feeling for the settings and sentiments involved. Working comfortably in widescreen on locations in Cornwall and the Isle of Man, Thomas and lenser Mike Molloy serve up strong visuals without being showy about it, and Richard Hartley’s score adds considerable warmth and flavor.
Hurt is excellent as the confirmed old crab who resolutely lives according to his beliefs and whose long-ago left turn in life turns out to be quite plausibly motivated. Bale nimbly walks a fine line between Bobby’s handicap and an increasingly mature comprehension of what he must do to survive. Unfortunately, Benzali has not been encouraged to express a human center beneath the Fat’s nastiness, rendering the man a cardboard villain.