Director Peter Yates, who so eloquently conveyed similar notions of boyhood friendships in “Breaking Away,” would seem like a natural fit for an update of the John Knowles classic coming of age tale, “A Separate Peace.” His account is at times a beautifully filmed, respectably acted period piece, evocative of an era when America and its youth still had a sense of innocence.
It’s the adaptation that stumbles; Wendy Kesselman’s script never really affirms the tale’s classic status by failing to capture the motive and meaning of two very different boys caught up in a complicated friendship. And while forgoing the clunky flashback format of the book may initially seem like plus, it robs viewers of valuable introspection, especially for Gene, the film’s central character.
Gene Forster (J. Barton) is working class Southerner who comes to a New England prep school during the summer of 1943 in order to receive a diploma before being drafted into World War II. He is paired with Phineas (Toby Moore), a charismatic rich kid who has a penchant for sports and rule breaking. The two couldn’t be more different, although Finny, as his band of admirers calls him, embraces the reluctant Gene and cajoles him into taking part in his extra-curricular activities.
The boys are bombarded with images and news of the war –many of the older students under go training for eventual service, but Finny is careful to filter out the harsher realities so as not to encroach on his own personal haven.
As the session goes on, Gene’s insecurities surface as he is alternately fascinated and angered by Finny’s infectious nature. Gene mistakenly begins to suspect his friend is trying to sabotage his academic career as he continually persuades him to go on a series of off-campus adventures. Their confounding relationship comes to head when, on a daring adventure atop a precarious tree limb, Gene causes Finny to fall and break his leg.
Both Finny and Gene are in denial about the real circumstances of the accident. Finny can’t or won’t believe Gene could do such a thing; Gene can’t or won’t believe he could do such a thing. Now unable to play sports and unfit for service, Finny spends his emotional energy propelling Gene on to fulfill his sports dreams and convincing him of the unimportance of the war.
Barton and Moore offer as best a character study as Kesselman’s script allows, but any subtext gets lost under heavy-handed metaphors and unrealized symbolism. Finny’s immediacy with Gene smacks of desperation instead of indomitable charm while Gene’s abject denial and repression is just disturbing and not at all thought provoking as the original text tries to portend.
Still a step up from the 1972 version starring Parker Stevenson, pic works best as a reference piece to the book and is noteworthy in that it marks actor Hume Cronyn’s last film role. Cronyn appears in three short scenes as a professor–a perf recognized more for sentimental reasons rather than as a testament to his long career.
Jeff Fruitman’s detailed sets, paired with Mason Daring’s mood setting music, meticulously recall the era’s look and feel, even if the movie never really captures the appropriate emotions.
Airing under the banner of a Showtime Original Picture For All Ages, viewers should note that pic’s themes and language are geared more toward PG-13 crowd.