It’s not exactly “Equus,” but Daniel Radcliffe’s maturation into this young-adult role is merely one reason to watch a poignant, splendid “Masterpiece” production, which star David Haig adapts from his 1997 stage play. Although set during World War I, Haig and director Brian Kirk have captured the timeless pain of young men being sent off to war, oscillating between that ordeal and the starkly different one endured by his worried family. If there were any doubts, it also demonstrates that for Radcliffe, there is clearly life after Harry Potter.
Haig (featured in “Four Weddings and a Funeral”) plays Rudyard Kipling, a hugely celebrated writer in 1914, when he was sounding the drumbeat for war against Germany and urging that “every fit young man must come forward to enlist.” That includes his 17-year-old son Jack (Radcliffe), who Kipling pulls strings to get into the army, after the spectacle-wearing lad is unable to pass an eye exam.
So Jack preps for war, while his American-born mother (Kim Cattrall) and sister (Carey Mulligan of “Bleak House”) fret about the danger. Proud papa, meanwhile, exults in the glory promised by his son fighting in “the greatest battle in the history of world,” as the two share a manly smoke.
What follows is a parallel structure, capturing the chaos of trench warfare in northern France and the relative tranquility, albeit fraught with concern, of life back home. The faded, rain-soaked battle sequences, while fleeting, are exceptionally well shot, bringing to mind the scenes in “Paths of Glory” of soldiers huddled in carved-out trenches, waiting to go perilously up that ladder and into the teeth of enemy machine guns.
Eager to please his father at first, Jack also grows up along the way, and not just because of that little mustache he acquires. For his part, Rudyard toils in that propaganda ministry, where they wrestle with such matters as whether to accurately report the massive casualties the British are suffering — 11,000 in one day of a single battle — and risk sapping resolve at home.
Radcliffe has obviously been eager to prove he’s not a kid anymore, from doing “Equus” onstage (complete with nude scene) to hilariously playing himself as a sex-crazed teen on HBO’s “Extras.” Even so, this strong performance as a determined young soldier underlines just how much Warner Bros.’ favorite wizard has blossomed, albeit with limited screen time, as the focus invariably shifts to Haig’s Kipling — a more forceful figure than Christopher Plummer’s version of the writer in “The Man Who Would Be King.”
“My Boy Jack” (a title derived from a rueful Kipling poem) needn’t dwell on the obvious and enduring matter of old men sending young ones off to war, all the while speaking of duty and honor, to get its themes across. The message nevertheless resonates powerfully throughout a movie that deserves to be seen beyond the customary “Masterpiece” contingent, Hogwarts and all.