I’ll start with a not terribly revealing confession: I managed to get through childhood without any meaningful contact with Lassie. I never read Eric Knight’s 1940 novel Lassie Come-Home, and I never saw the 1943 Hollywood movie or its many subsequent films and tv series. Basically, I knew that Lassie was a collie and that she was always saving a boy named Timmy from falling down a well. The solid new version of Lassie in theaters this week returns the story to its roots, and it proves as good a place as any to start.
Like Knight’s novel, the film is set in Britain in the 1930s. When Yorkshire coal miner Sam Carraclough (John Lynch) loses his job because the mine has closed, he’s forced to sell Lassie, the beloved pet collie that belongs to his son Joe (Jonathan Mason). Her new owner is a wealthy duke (Peter O’Toole) who provides her with creature comforts and a loving granddaughter (Hester Odgers), but Lassie still continually runs away from home and finds Joe again. The duke takes her to his ancestral home in the northern tip of Scotland, so when she escapes once again, she has to make a long trek back to Yorkshire. The distance is at least 500 miles, though Lassie’s journey is probably closer to 600, since she takes the long way around Loch Ness.
Writer-director Charles Sturridge, the veteran of some British films that didn’t get much play on our side of the pond (FairyTale: A True Story, Where Angels Fear to Tread), strikes the right measured pace for the material. His treatment of the story isn’t as inspiring as it could be, and he takes a few missteps — the Loch Ness monster’s unnecessary half-second appearance comes to mind. Still, he makes good use of the locations and gives the film some additional heft by introducing an element that wasn’t in the book, namely the backdrop of the coming world war.
He’s helped immeasurably by high-powered actors who imbue their roles with forceful personalities. Besides O’Toole, there’s also Samantha Morton as Joe’s frazzled mum, Kelly Macdonald as a Glasgow lass who protests Lassie’s ill treatment at the hands of the city’s dogcatchers, and Peter Dinklage as a traveling potter whose wagon transports Lassie for part of her way. Dinklage has a shaky English accent, but he’s still good enough here to continue the roll he’s been on ever since he starred in The Station Agent three years ago. Bravo to this 4’6” actor for showing us what we should have known all along, that a performer’s size needn’t limit the roles he plays.
Lassie’s PG rating might mislead you if you don’t know how the original story goes. The book had the collie experience a good dose of the world’s cruelty, and the film doesn’t stint on that, showing Lassie being beaten with a belt by one of the Duke’s men and being on the scene when another dog is killed. These sequences aren’t milked for pathos but included as the integral parts of the story that they are. This Lassie’s intelligence and lack of sentimentality are rare qualities among kids’ films, and its honesty makes it rarer still.
Starring Jonathan Mason, Samantha Morton, and Peter O’Toole. Written and directed by Charles Sturridge, based on Eric Knight’s novel. Rated PG.