"I think I'll buy a unicorn. A unicorn has the most special gift of all: one horn, and he can grant any wish."—Joe
Its screenplay adapted by Wolf Mankowitz (Casino Royale) from his own novel, Carol Reed's A Kid for Two Farthings is set among Britain's working classes in the semi-fictional Fashion Street market of London's East End of the mid-1950s. The film follows the adventures of Joe, a young boy who shows little talent for keeping his pets alive and healthy. Satellites in Joe's bustling existence include his mother (Celia Johnson, Brief Encounter), who pines for his father who's away in Africa searching for a fortune in diamonds; a bodybuilder named Sam (Joe Robinson, Diamonds Are Forever) who dreams of becoming Mr. World so he can afford an engagement ring for his fiancée, Sonia (Diana Dors); and old Mr. Kandinsky (David Kossoff, Indiscreet), a tailor who yearns for a life made easier by a Peyton Steam Press, a piece of equipment that remains financially unattainable.
After Mr. Kandinsky entertains Joe with stories of unicorns and their magical ability to grant wishes, the boy goes out searching for one of the mythical beasts so he can fulfill the deepest desires of the folks around him. And, lo and behold, he finds one in the form of a kid goat deformed in such a way that he has a single horn growing out of the center of his forehead. Joe begins wishing fervently on behalf of the adults around him and, though there are perfectly rational explanations, the wishes begin coming true. In the process, everyone involved learns a valuable lesson about dreaming outside the bounds of their current circumstances, and taking action to make their dreams come true.
The interesting thing about A Kid for Two Farthings is that it only plays as a child's fable on the surface. In many ways, it's a realist tale of life among the British working classes who had little opportunity to better themselves. The film isn't just about the yearning of such people for a better life, it's about their desire to have a measure of control over their own circumstances. The titular kid, then, isn't a magical panacea but a symbol of the sort of hope that enables people to believe in themselves and act on their own behalf. Because we're made to identify with a working class British child, and we see the world largely through his eyes, the film has some of the same flavor as the later Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory (1971) except, tellingly, for the overt fantasy. Magic exists in A Kid for Two Farthings only insofar as Joe believes in it. But this causes a strange thing to happen to the viewer: because we identify so closely with Joe, we almost come to believe in the magic of his unicorn despite Reed carefully establishing rational explanations for everything that happens. Like the adults in the movie, we know the animal is just a goat, but part of us wants to believe it's something more.
A Kid for Two Farthings is widely considered a lesser work by Reed, which it is, although the case for its mediocrity is often overstated—while it doesn't compare to the brilliance of The Third Man (1949), I'd watch it any day in lieu of being forced to sit through Oliver! (1968), which won the Oscar for Best Picture and for which Reed picked up a statue for Best Director. For one thing, A Kid for Two Farthings is one of those rare films that plays as well to adults as it does to children, though each will experience it quite differently. So much family entertainment is so wretchedly constructed one would think we'd be more appreciative when a quality work comes along, but A Kid for Two Farthings appears to suffer as a result of our tendency to compare it to The Third Man, although the comparison is completely inappropriate. Though it's not intellectually complex, Reed uses every ounce of his craft to evoke in us the same desire to believe in the fantastic that the movie's adult characters feel, while simultaneously refusing to allow his film to retreat into fantasy as the solution to his characters' problems. A filmmaker's ability to manipulate viewers' loyalties and emotions isn't a given and shouldn't be lightly dismissed. A Kid for Two Farthings may be light entertainment, a simple morality play, but it's got plenty of real-life texture, and it's worth 90 minutes of our time because it was tightly and meticulously constructed by a highly-skilled filmmaker. It's a good little movie.
Home Vision Entertainment presents the film on DVD in a full screen transfer that honors the work's original theatrical presentation. The image is clean and stable with bold, gorgeous colors. The soundtrack is presented in stereo surround. It may seem like overkill for such a small film but Reed and composer Benjamin Frankel use the layered sounds of animals, voices, and music from the bustling street market to craft a soundtrack that is, fittingly, abstract and aggressive though constructed entirely of exactly the sorts of sounds Joe might hear daily in an environment teeming with humanity. Because of the age of the film, the source places some limits on the dynamics and detail of the track, but this DVD release makes the most of what's there.
With the exception of a brief but informative essay by author Neil Rattigan, there are no extras.
If you're looking for good family entertainment, A Kid for Two Farthings is a lesser-known gem you might enjoy. It's certainly not among the very best of Carol Reed's work, but it's also been too quickly dismissed over the years. It's a gentle, smart, and good-hearted little movie.
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Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• Essay by Neil Rattigan, Author of This Is England: British Film and the People's War, 1939-1945
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