Like his phenomenal success War Horse, Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo’s story of teenaged brothers caught up in the First World War was first adapted for the stage (as a one-man show) and now makes a handsome and touching drama.
The Peaceful brothers Charlie and Tommo (played in childhood by Hero Fiennes-Tiffin and Samuel Bottomley, from adolescence by Jack O’Connell and George Mackay) grow up in Devon sharing a loving home, tragic difficulties, a country life of farm labour and a love for the same girl, spirited Molly (Izzy Meikle-Small and then Alexandra Roach). Then The Great War engulfs Europe and a sad, angry Tommo impetuously lies about his age to enlist. Wiser, warier and tougher, the irrepressibly cheeky Charlie follows, determined to protect him. The two endure a sadistic sergeant (John Lynch), posh twit officers, the loss of comrades, squalid survival in the trenches and everything the Huns can throw at them until a dramatic choice between following orders or saving a brother has chilling consequences. The story is told by Tommo looking back in the dark hours after a court martial, the themes of family, love, class and the futility of war coming through clearly and poignantly.
As it’s British this is accomplished without the gloss and sentimentality typical of a Hollywood approach, but smaller resources and the need to be family friendly give it the feel of a solid period tv drama. The young leads are strong and sympathetic. Director Pat O’Connor (Circle Of Friends, Dancing At Lughnasa) and playwright Simon Reade (making his debut as screenwriter) are faithful to Morpurgo’s informative but entertaining appeal to a young audience and don’t make the battle scenes overly, explicitly harrowing. But since it’s obvious war is hell this is unsuitable for younger children.
Is Private Peaceful suitable for kids? Here are our parents’ notes...
A poison gas attack leaves a war horse horribly dead, and a number of characters meet tragic and violent ends.