Judge Daryl Loomis has always dreamed of slaving away at sea.
They hanged a man on a tyburn tree. He should be dead but wait and see.
Leon Garfield isn't a big name on this side of the pond, but his 1968 children's novel Black Jack was a pretty big hit in England. Kids flock to novels about independent children and Black Jack, with its contrasted young protagonists, plays well on this idea and it worked, at least over there. A decade later, director Ken Loach (Kes), another British artist who had more success at home than abroad, made a movie of it, but the end result was not what he wanted. It went into the weeds of obscurity for many years, until 2012, when the British Film Institute paid for him to recut the film more to his liking. The result of that was seven minutes shorter than the original version and, now, is available to us all through E1 and the Cohen Film Collection.
Facts of the Case
Tolly (Stephen Hirst) is the apprentice of a draper (the people who dress the dead), when the body of a recently executed man is brought in before his burial. It turns out, though, that the man tricked everybody and survived and Tolly is surprised to see him rise from his coffin. He calls himself Black Jack (Jean Franval, Le Cercle Rouge) and he's a mean ol' cuss, but Tolly helps him escape. On their adventures, Black Jack reveals his villainy by trying to upend a carriage and robbing the riders. His plan succeeds, but not as he'd hoped. On the carriage is a young mental patient named Belle (Louise Cooper), who runs off into the woods. Tolly chases and finds her, but when they return, the carriage is gone. Belle is now Tolly's charge and they travel on, eventually glomming onto a travelling carnival. Hatch (Andrew Bennett, This Is My Father), the young apprentice of the snake oil man, doesn't take kindly to this, so steals Belle's shawl and finds his way to her family so he can blackmail them.
In looking up information on Black Jack, having never heard of it before, I found one overriding statement in nearly everything I saw: some iteration of "rediscovered classic from Ken Loach." This has apparently been decided because it's old and by somebody people have heard of, but this is by no means a classic. It's not a bad movie, but it's quite problematic in places and Loach admits as much in his commentary. It's a charming little movie, though, and benefits from a solid story and actors who are clearly trying very hard.
Trying hard doesn't mean that they do a good job, though. This was Stephen Hirst's only film role and it's clear that he had not been bitten by the acting bug. Now, he doesn't sink to the level of 30s-era child acting, but that's like saying I'm better at baseball than my cat. It doesn't mean I'm good at baseball. Andrew Bennett is better in the Hatch role, but I think it's probably easier and more fun for a kid to play a conniving jerk than an earnest, helpful boy. Louise Cooper, also in her only role, has the best turn as Belle. That's with a caveat, though, because acting troubles in people playing mental patients are more easily forgiven by the claim that it's a manifestation of the illness. But she stammers and restarts lines as much as either of the other two kids. The adult actors are all perfectly fine, but none of them stand out as particularly strong.
Shot with natural light under very cheap circumstances, Black Jack isn't a great looking film. The nature cinematography looks nice, but the shooting seems more about utility than it is about sheer beauty. The film is populated with Yorkshire-area musicians and comedians, so there is a lot of diegetic music and fun little bits from the extras. The story has that Dickensian crappiness, especially in regard to the children, which is always appealing to me, and it ultimately charms with its strong story and earnest performances. It's not a great film, not by any means; but it is worth watching, especially for Ken Loach fans who might not previously have had the opportunity to see it.
E1 and the Cohen Film Collection group have put together many great restorations of older films, but their release of Black Jack isn't one of them. Some of it isn't their fault, but it isn't the restoration one would hope for. The 1.66:1/1080p image is mixed, but that's only partially the fault of the transfer. There is a bit of damage here and there, but nothing terrible. The big trouble is the way it was filmed. Interiors were shot in 35mm, and these look fine, with fairly realistic colors and decent black levels. Exteriors, though, were shot in 16mm and were naturally lit, making these scenes extremely soft and pushing the heavy grain structure to the forefront. I know that's a result of the film stock, of course, but the difference between the two types is jarring every time. The sound is a fairly wan PCM mono mix. Dialog and music are both clear, but there are times, again in the outdoor scenes, where it's inconsistent.
Extras include an audio commentary with Ken Loach, who is honest about his feelings regarding the film and the myriad things he would change about it. He doesn't talk a ton, but when he does, it's always interesting. A reel of deleted scenes show what Loach eliminated from this new cut, and he was right across the board. An essay booklet and a pair of trailers close out the package.
Black Jack isn't Ken Loach's greatest achievement, and it's not a rediscovered classic. It is, however, a charming film with a good story and earnest, if not great performances. Some will be bored and others will love it; personally, I can give it a mild recommendation.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
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