Though no one seems to have stopped and asked if the world really needs it, this remake of the 1962 Gallic kidpic about warring tykes is a light, often charming transplant to Irish soil that’s old-fashioned in the best sense and manages to avoid almost every obstacle that time and changing values can throw in its path. But whether a theatrical audience still exists in mature Western markets for this kind of upmarket Saturday-matinee fare is something that Warners will need to ponder territory by territory. The David Puttnam production opened in the U.K. on Oct. 14, following its world preem in Dublin in late August.
Original director/co-scripter Yves Robert, who owned the rights to Louis Pergaud’s novel, reportedly resisted all offers for a remake for a long time. Given that any transposition to contempo Britain would have been incongruous, Puttnam and writer Colin Welland’s ingenious solution of setting it deep in rural Ireland, in an unspecified period, and virtually excluding all signs of modern, everyday, adult life, gives the movie a sense of timelessness and (for non-Irish auds) a slightly whimsical edge that just about makes the goings-on acceptable.
Interestingly, the reworking is much softer than the Gallic B&W original, which featured some salty language from the kids, considerably more passionate playing and an ending in which the two gang leaders embraced each other in a reform school. At the time, the pic played as an adults-only arthouse release.
Standing in for the rural Brittany of the original is a sleepy corner of southwest Ireland, where two villages, Carrickdowse and Ballydowse, straddle a stretch of tidal water. Welland’s adaptation is framed as a v.o. reminiscence by the adult Marie, a girl once attached to the “Ballys” gang and, it turns out, stuck on its young leader, Fergus (Gregg Fitzgerald).
The scruffy Ballys are engaged in a permanent kids’ war with the neighboring “Carricks,” whose leader is the more upscale-looking Geronimo (John Coffey) and who are never seen out of school uniform and neckties.
Following a set-to on a bridge, in which one of their number is insulted, the Ballys graffiti a Carrickdowse church, precipitating a head-to-head in which they capture Geronimo’s thuggish sidekick (Paul Batt) and remove all the buttons from his clothing. In revenge, the Carricks later do the same thing to Fergus.
In the next battle, the Ballys surprise the opposition by jumping up stark naked, retrieve their buttons and start to build a war chest for a final showdown. Set in a ruined castle, this ends with Geronimo beaten and de-buttoned.
Last half-hour, which has a kind of tagged-on feel as the pic searches for a resolution, centers on the repercussions after a turncoat from the Ballys guts the gang’s forest h.q. with a tractor. Last reel has both Fergus and Geronimo fleeing to the hills to escape the wrath of their parents, and buddying up in a somewhat low-voltage finale.
To the movie’s credit, any allegory to the present Irish troubles is simply there for the taking rather than being forced centerstage. By keeping the focus tight on his young players, all non-pros and mostly in their early teens, debuting director John Roberts constructs a self-sufficient world. Preachiness is kept to a minimum.
A measure of Roberts’ success is that the nude battle (the original’s most famous sequence) skirts embarrassment through swift handling and a playful tone. Likewise, the pic’s least successful moments are in the final stretch, where the adult world and modern hardware (which would seem to place the movie somewhere in the ’80s) intrude.
Casting and playing are on the button. As the two gang leaders, the rougher-looking Fitzgerald and finer-featured Coffey fit their roles like gloves , and there’s flavorsome support, notably from Eveanna Ryan as the hero-worshipping Marie and Batt as Coffey’s tree-swinging lieutenant. On the adult side, Liam Cunningham is fine as the Ballys’ sympathetic teacher, and the experienced Colm Meaney (“The Snapper”) solid as Coffey’s dad.
Tech contributions are led by an upbeat, Irish-tinged score from ace composer Rachel Portman, who once again gives shape and emotional substance to potentially loose material, not least in her handling of the young Marie’s pre-hormonal admiration for Fergus. Bruno De Keyzer’s lensing of the verdant West Cork locations is sometimes ill-served by poor color grading in the print caught.