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Current Rating 8.2/10 | 15 Votes

Produced by Francesca Barra, Ed Guiney, Charles Sturridge

Cast: Samantha Morton, John Lynch, Peter Dinklage, Peter O’Toole, Jonathan Mason, Hester Odgers, Steve Pemberton, Kelly Macdonald, Jamie Lee


Lassie was and is the ultimate tear jerker. In its original 1943 Lassie Come Home with Roddy McDowell and Elizabeth Taylor, faithful to the book by Eric Knight, it inspired many sequels that were variations on the theme of loyal and determined dog conquers distance, enemies and obstacles to be reunited with her young master. In the best parts of this movie, part of Lassie’s journey reminds of The Littlest Hobo, first a movie in 1958, and later a TV series that ran from 1979 to 1985, featuring London, a resourceful, homeless German Shepherd who moves from town to town, often fed by strangers, helping people and having adventures.


Lassie is the beloved companion of young Joe Carraclough (Jonathan Mason), only son of Yorkshire collier Sam (John Lynch) and his wife Sarah (Samantha Morton). Obviously a pedigreed Collie, there’s no indication in the film of how she came to belong to the Carracloughs, whose poverty deepens when the coal mine is closed and there’s no work, on the eve of World War II.  The family is forced to sell Lassie to the local milord, the Duke of Rudling (Peter O’Toole), who owns several of the breed, after the dog catches the eye of his young granddaughter Cilla (Hester Odgers). Lassie escapes time and again, to be at the school gates when Joe gets out of school, only to be returned by Joe and his parents to the Duke. Finally the Duke takes Lassie to his estate in the North of Scotland. Lassie escapes once more and the film is predominantly about this journey of 500 miles to get home, and her encounters along the way.


I have a lot of trouble with Lassie, because though the story is quite powerful in its own right, the emotional manipulation and sentimentality in plot lines and characterisation, not to mention the over-the-top musical score by Adrian Johnston, is laid on with several front-end loaders. Perhaps children are less discerning, or were less discerning sixty odd years ago, about the difference between the true sentiment which is genuine emotion, and cheap sentimentality.  Perhaps people are more aware these days of  cruelty to animals. I found it far too heavy-handed.


Lassie’s message is an overwhelming ear-bash about cruelty, shown particularly in the film’s simplistic characterisations. Humanity is evidently divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ by their attitude to animals. The ‘good’ are shown to like animals, especially dogs, and treat them with kindness and respect, if not understanding or empathy. ‘Bad’ people are those who hate animals/dogs and mistreat them. Thankfully the dog who plays Lassie – actually a male called Mason – is not anthropomorphised, though she is shown to have uncommon intelligence.


Swamped by the mawkishness of the characterisation, the character arcs practically disappear. Lassie herself has one: unwillingly sold, wanting to come home, naively trusting all and learning through the pain of thrown rocks, fired shotguns and brutal treatment that humans are not to be trusted, enduring privation and hardship on her epic journey, and then learning to trust once more. But it’s sketchy, as are the arcs of nearly every other main character. In fact the minor characters, especially the resourceful gypsy Rowlie, played warmly by Peter Dinklage, and the outspokenly earnest and humane Jeanie (Kelly Macdonald) and Tom (Jamie Lee), who supports her against brutal council dog catchers in Scotland, learn and change more in their short scenes than the entire storyline involving the Carraclough family.


The one other character to change, and that only in a minor way, is Peter O’Toole’s Duke. The Carraclough parents endure torments, as does young Joe, but that’s about it. The problem with there being no growth in main characters is that there is nothing of value learned or shared. The only possible value is an excuse to cry, and not healthily or cathartically, in a maudlin morass of melodramatic marmalade.


There’s a echo of Lassie’s plight and journey in Cilla’s relegation to an unwanted new boarding school and her subsequent escape, and a continual contrast between social classes – the very wealthy Duke, his daughter, and Cilla, and their sumptuous properties and carefully maintained spacious estates, against the mean streets and narrow houses of the village where the Carracloughs live. Though unlikely, determined fox hunters in their pinks chase a hapless fox into the town and the nearby coal mine with its sweat-and-grime-faced men, giving one of the film’s stark contrasts in socio-economic conditions as well as attitudes to animals. The miners’ cheeky solution to the hounds hot on the scent of the hunted fox reeks of scornful solidarity against the apparently uncaring upper classes. Stereotypes practically hit one on the head in every scene.


The performances are actually fine, however. The casting of the youngsters, Joe and Cilla, is excellent. Jonathan Mason has the pinched face, slender frame and hunched shoulders of poverty and a wistful, dreamy quality well suited to a boy often in trouble for his day-dreaming. Hester Odgers’ Cilla has presence, drawing herself up into regal disdain when she outfoxes the cruel Hynes (played with evil gusto by Steve Pemberton). John Lynch and Samantha Morton are appropriately noble though poor, doing what they can with roles of limited range. Despite the cast’s efforts, and despite magnificent scenery ably displayed throughout, these fail to distract from the movie’s major deficiencies which cheapen genuine values. 


© Avril Carruthers      14th April 2006


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