Many of the elements that worked for Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” are present and correct in WWI drama “Private Peaceful,” which, like “Horse,” was adapted from a Michael Morpurgo novel. But this film’s much more modest budget, absence of Hollywood studio involvement, and lower-profile source material will all conspire to limit its theatrical prospects. More downstairs than upstairs in its depiction of life in the early part of the 20th century, “Private” could nevertheless see “Downton Abbey” viewers answer the bugle call, with more reporting for duty down the line for upscale tube viewing.
Following the contours of Morpurgo’s 2003 book, the story is told in flashback from the perspective of Devon village lad Thomas “Tommo” Peaceful. Suffering pangs of guilt over the accident that killed his gamekeeper father, young Tommo draws even closer to protective elder brother Charlie, but a rivalrous dynamic emerges as the characters enter their teens. Even though it’s sensitive Tommo (now played by George MacKay, “The Boys Are Back”) who truly loves Molly (Alexandra Roach, “The Iron Lady”), it’s Charlie (Jack O’Connell) who is close to her in age, and the two marry after she becomes pregnant. Tommo heads off to fight when war with Germany breaks out, while Charlie stays behind with his young bride. The fraternal bond is too strong, however, and (echoes of “War Horse”), he heads off to Flanders to look after his sibling, who has lied about his true age in order to enlist.
Although the story is intercut with glimpses of uniformed soldier Tommo, seemingly facing a court martial, “Private Peaceful” takes about an hour to deliver any actual wartime action. Until that arrives, the film comprehensively depicts the Peaceful boys’ home life with their mother, Hazel (Maxine Peake), who works for the local landowner (a suitably bumptious Richard Griffiths).
Screenwriter Simon Reade, who previously adapted the material for a BBC radio play and a one-man stage show, generously finds room for an array of supporting characters, including eldest brother Joe, who suffers from learning disabilities; a quartet of neighborhood pals; and the aptly nicknamed Grandma Wolf (Frances de la Tour). Veteran director Pat O’Connor (“Dancing at Lughnasa”) is well served by his lead actors: MacKay has a naturally soulful quality, deftly hinting at inner hurt, and O’Connell has Charlie’s cheeky grin and natural charisma down pat. Among the supporting turns, John Lynch’s relentlessly barking sergeant is one cliche that’s been seen too many times.
The drama hinges on the pic’s one major piece of withholding: the identity of the Peaceful brother who faces summary military justice. But the attempts to mislead the audience are ill advised, robbing the film of intended suspense. One more story about how the Great War’s casual disdain for human life planted the seeds for the social unrest that followed, the defiantly old-fashioned “Private Peaceful” nevertheless succeeds in hitting the right emotional notes, with a handy assist from Rachel Portman’s score.