Judge Ben Saylor had planned to talk with crowds and keep his virtue, or walk with Kings and not lose the common touch, but he was too busy writing this review.
A young man fights for his country.
PBS' "Masterpiece" series moves beyond Jane Austen and E.M. Forster and into the world of celebrated English writer Rudyard Kipling (The Jungle Book, Kim) with My Boy Jack, a poignant, well-acted examination of the personal cost of war.
Facts of the Case
England, 1914. War with Germany looms, and able-bodied young men across the nation sign up for military service. Seized with a desire to serve, young John "Jack" Kipling (Daniel Radcliffe, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) attempts to join the navy, but is rejected because of his myopia. When a similar bid to join the army fails, Jack's father, the popular writer Rudyard Kipling (David Haig, Four Weddings and a Funeral)—himself an avid English patriot and supporter of war with Germany—pulls strings to secure Jack a commission with the Irish Guards. When Jack goes missing during the Battle of Loos, it plunges Kipling and his American wife, Carrie (Kim Cattrall, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country), into a quest to find their son.
Movies with well-known writers for protagonists are generally a mixed bag; for every nuanced, complex Capote, there's a silly, conventional Finding Neverland. Thankfully, My Boy Jack belongs in the former category.
My Boy Jack is based on a play written by David Haig, who also plays Kipling in the film. Looking at the fact that he both wrote the play and adapted it for the screen, it's apparent that Haig has a deep connection with the material. Not only does the story feel meticulously researched, but Haig's performance feels comfortable, lived in. He expertly conveys Kipling's excessive zealousness in trying to get his son, who is clearly not qualified for combat, into a unit that will see some action in the war. Conversely, Haig also lets us see the conflicted, remorseful side of Kipling after his son goes missing in action. Despite the fact that Jack should never have been placed in the Irish Guards, Haig makes Kipling into a well-rounded, sympathetic figure. It really is an excellent portrayal, and I could see a series of TV films (or perhaps a mini-series) with Haig portraying the writer at various stages in his life.
Despite Haig being the writer and star of the film, attention is inevitably drawn away from that fact due to the presence of Daniel Radcliffe in the cast (as can be seen by cover of the DVD). Beyond his hilarious appearance on the second season of Extras, I haven't seen Radcliffe in anything besides the Harry Potter films. This is one of those cases where I can already hear people complaining, "I can't see him in this role because I can't see him as anyone but Harry Potter." If you're one of those people, too bad, I guess. The characters aren't particularly similar beyond the fact that both wear glasses, and really, Jack isn't in the movie that much anyway. But for the few scenes he's in, Radcliffe acquits himself admirably, deftly demonstrating his character's simultaneous love for his family and also his desire to get away from it, serve his country, and emerge from the shadow of his famous father. If anything, I wanted to see more of his character, particularly a little more of his relationship with father.
To me, however, the real revelation in this cast is Kim Cattrall. Despite having obviously been in the acting game longer than Radcliffe, like him, Cattrall is closely identified with a certain role; in this case, Samantha from Sex and the City. And while I'm no expert on that show, the role of Carrie Kipling is miles away from I'm given to understand Samantha is like. Far from being a meek, submissive wife perpetually overruled by her legendary husband, Carrie is an equal partner in her and Rudyard's marriage, and she's not afraid to go toe-to-toe with him on an issue. When Jack goes missing, instead of shutting down or giving in to woe, Carrie is galvanized into action, interviewing soldiers who saw Jack on the battlefield, examining photographs of missing soldiers, getting Rudyard to use his contacts and connections to help, and so on. *Spoiler* And when it is learned that Jack was killed, Cattrall gives us some very tender and moving moments of grief and sorrow. End Spoiler.
The DVD of My Boy Jack has very good sound and picture quality. Much of the film takes place in the Kiplings' dark home, and the transfer renders these scenes very nicely for the most part. For extras, there are 24 minutes' worth of interviews with Haig, Radcliffe, and Cattrall. While the participants don't go as deeply into the material as I would have liked, Haig does provide insight as to the origin of the play as well as context on the England of the time. Up next is about six minutes' worth of deleted scenes, all of which I would have kept in the movie. I especially liked the scene where Kipling has his wife listen to a new poem and offer some constructive criticism. This small moment would have helped build their relationship in the movie, and it's a shame it wasn't left in. At 94 minutes (including credits), the movie could have been longer without feeling padded.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's very fortunate for My Boy Jack that the performances are so strong, because the story, while well told, doesn't always work. My first problem (and maybe it's more a quibble than a problem) is that the Kiplings are, clearly, a well-off family, and thus can afford to spend time and money on their search for Jack. I'm sure many other families of fighting men did not have that luxury during the war. Fortunately, the way the characters are written and acted helps ensure that, by and large, they still have the audience's sympathy.
I also feel that the movie's third act is rather rushed. *Spoiler* Once we find out that Jack is dead, there's not much left to the movie before Kipling is reciting his poem "My Boy Jack" and the story comes to a close. We get only a little bit of Kipling and Carrie dealing with their son's death, and of Kipling reconsidering his rabid join-up-or-you're-a-coward mentality. Much of the movie's message seems to hinge upon Kipling's regret for pushing so hard for Jack to join up (even though Jack himself wanted to go), but when it comes time for that transformation, director David Kirk and Haig rush through a few scenes (which, admittedly, are good scenes) and that's that. This is one of the few movies where I will make the complaint that it should have been longer, if only a little bit. End Spoiler.
For the most part, My Boy Jack is well shot, but director David Kirk and director of photography David Odd occasionally make some bad decisions, such as the handheld technique employed in some dialogue scenes. Okay, that works for Cloverfield, but not for a British drama. In addition, during the battle scenes, the camera sometimes captures the action upside-down in what seems to be a misguided attempt to do something innovative with a first-person point of view shot. Needless to say, it's more distracting than effective.
My Boy Jack, while not without its flaws, is still an engaging film with strong performances all around. The DVD is a little light on the extras, but anyone interested in learning more about Rudyard Kipling and/or the era he lived in would do well to give My Boy Jack a try.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• Interviews with David Haig, Daniel Radcliffe, and Kim Cattrall
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