on July 22, 1994 by Kim Williamson
Finally arriving Stateside via Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn, Goldwyn having handled the similar but less-weighty "Napoleon," this 2005 Irish/U.K/French/U.S. co-production of "Lassie" returns the beloved collie to her roots: pre-World War II Yorkshire, just as in the original 1938 novel "Lassie Come-Home" by Brit-native Eric Knight. This is a key point for audiences here, who -- remembering the long-running Wrather Prods. TV series launched on CBS in 1954, wherein the dog had been transplanted to the American heartland -- will likely be expecting a sentimental story laced with whistle-borne tunes and moments of dialogue like, "Lassie, you're saying that Timmy fell in the well?" What they will see instead in this 11th Lassie big-screen adaptation (the first was the 1943 Roddy McDowall-Elizabeth Taylor classic, much sweeter) is a dramatic and at times heartbreaking look inside the uncaring social classifications of that long-ago English era, with the storm clouds of coming world war swirling about.

The story: Nine-year-old Joe (Jonathan Mason, whose terrific naturalism puts him nearly in league with "The Power of One's" Guy Witcher and "Into the West's" Ciaran Fitzgerald) is a lonely daydreamer; the highlight of his day seems to be finding his Lassie at classes' end awaiting him at the schoolyard gate. He's the only child of poor but loving parents, Sarah (Samantha Morton, Oscar-nom'd for "In America" and "Sweet and Lowdown") and Sam Carraclough (John Lynch, best known for such Isles fare as "Some Mother's Son" and "The Secret of Roan Inish"); late Depression times turn even rougher when the local coalyard closes, throwing miner Sam out of work. Desperate for money to keep food on the table, Sam with great reluctance accepts the standing offer of the local Duke of Rudling (Peter O'Toole), who keeps a collection of dogs, for the bonnie Lassie -- who escapes, again and again, to return to her broken-hearted Joe. Finally, in twain with granddaughter Cilla (a compassionate Hester Odgers), the duke takes Lassie 500 miles north to the family estate in Scotland. The rest of the tale is of Lassie's incredible journey, having escaped one final time, across the highlands and moors, through delights and dangers, back to her little boy.

Writer/director Charles Sturridge ("Where Angels Fear to Tread") understands not only the overlying emotions but also the underlying currents of the drama; an opening sequence, where red-coated hunters and their hounds trail a fox for the kill, not only introduces but also encapsulates the theme. A companion family-bond storyline is also a good fit, that of Cilla's unhappiness with being away from her mother and father and then being sent away from her grandfather to boarding school. The cast is strong almost to a fault, with the leads all in deep form and such esteemed character thesps as Edward Fox ("Nicholas Nickleby") and Kelly Macdonald ("Finding Neverland") filling even bit parts; Peter Dinklage ("The Station Agent") is remarkable as a traveling puppeteer with an ability to divine both the world and its kind. Likewise, Adrian Johnston's score is pitch-perfect, a mixture of bright and haunted notes, and the production design of Caitriona Walsh brings out the best of backtown Blighty -- if perhaps too prettily.

Nonetheless, there are lean moments: The vile treatment of Lassie by the Duke's kennelsman (Steve Pemberton) seems inauthentic, introduced only to provide a needless sort of narrative drive, and sometimes the filmmaker tries too hard, as when he briefly, and however beautifully, includes an overhead CGI shot of the Loch Ness monster, as if for that moment "Lassie" were crossing paths with another creature production. Happy-ending-coddled Americans might find themselves leaving the theater pleased, until on the drive home the meaning of the duke's closing words -- that he realized that to have the dog he needed to buy the man -- sinks in...a telling coda to a work that bowed with the chased fox. Starring Peter OToole, Samantha Morton, John Lynch, Jonathan Mason and Hester Ogders. Directed and written by Charles Sturridge. Produced by Ed Guiney and Francesca Barra. A Goldwyn/Roadside release. Drama. Rated PG for some mild violent content and language. Running time: 109 min
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