Leave it to the English to find another way to set a compelling story in a humdrum rural village. Yet with “Goodnight Mr. Tom,” “Masterpiece Theater” has trumped expectations and given viewers a sentimental drama of the first order. Amazingly, the show is as fresh and bracing as country air.
Based on Michelle Magorian’s popular novel, “Mr. Tom” brims with a host of typically English characters and situations. There is the vicar, of course, and the taking of tea. Thatched-roof cottages and well-kept gardens dot the scenery. But what elevates this drama above generic fare is the heartwarming tale at its center.
Tom Oakley (John Thaw of “Inspector Morse” fame) is an embittered old man who lost his wife and young son during WWI. Now, as Britain again goes to war against Germany, and children are being evacuated from big cities and billeted in country villages, Tom must accept his civic duty and put up a 9-year-old named Willie Beech (Nick Robinson).
But caring for Willie is something of a challenge, it turns out. Abused by his mother, the boy is an illiterate bed wetter. Tom, though, is enlivened by helping Willie and soon finds his long-dormant paternal feelings reawakened.
As the story progresses, the bond between the old man and his awkward charge becomes stronger, and when Mrs. Beech suddenly summons Willie home to London, the parting is palpably painful.
Mrs. Beech (Annabelle Apsion) is an even worse mother than viewers will imagine, and only Tom’s opportune intervention saves Willie from a dreadful fate.
What’s makes “Mr. Tom” especially gratifying is the excellence of its performers, and helmer Jack Gold’s flair for detail and nuance.
Thaw is predictably excellent in this Silas Marner-type role, but the sensitivity he brings to Tom exceeds even high expectations. (Just watching this thesp’s expressive eyes constitutes a course in acting.)
Young Robinson is superb as well. In an extremely difficult role — he must, at different times, be ebullient and desperate — this talented tyke proves sympathetic and endearing.
The rest of the cast, which includes Thomas Orange in a fine turn as Willie’s mate Zach, offers exactly the sort of polished work one expects from “Masterpiece Theater.”
Special mention must be made of Apsion’s frightening mom. Not since Jane Hoffman played Sally Field’s mother in “Sybil” has television yielded a more terrifying mother.
Chris O’Dell’s lensing makes the landscapes seem impossibly verdant and the interiors incredibly cozy. An apt score by Carl Davis completes this perfect pastoral picture.