Private Peaceful, based on the book by Michael Morpurgo, is a low-budget British war film. The movie is inevitably going to be compared to War Horse, the other Morpurgo adaptation to come out recently. This comparison would be unfair, however, as not only did Private Peaceful start production before War Horse, but it’s actually a much better movie. While the Speilberg film was a manipulative drama that was too sentimental for it’s own good, Private Peaceful is a well-acted, well-directed, and all around well-executed war film. Albeit with some hiccups.
The plot is based around Tomo Peaceful (George Mackay) looking back at his experiences in World War I. We see from his childhood, with his father dying, him going to work in farms with his brother Charlie (Jack O’Connell), and, most importantly, falling in love with a girl named Molly (Alexandra Roach). However, after the war is announced, he joins up with the army, again with his brother Charlie, feeling he has nothing left in his home town. The film chronicles his experiences in the trenches, with the love, loss, and downright senseless stupidity that always comes with war.
The film is largely about the pointlessness of war, which even further separates it from War Horse. It actually focuses on the characters and what they go through in connection to the war, and the blindness of people who call others that don’t particularly want to be killed in the line of defending a pointless cause cowards. Richard Griffiths plays one of these people, in a wonderful performance that is the high point of the film. In fact, Charlie’s breakdown to Griffiths is the best scene in the film, with Griffiths’ character not listening to Charlie at all, and Charlie being aggressive and loud, which never gets you anywhere. It’s an example of the way that all of the characters are flawed, even the protagonist, which is always a plus.
The writing, though the dialogue at times seems stilted and unnatural, the writing is mostly good, and the direction by Pat O’Connor being excellent, especially during the war scenes. There is just one thing about this film that annoyed me, that being the ending. It wasn’t the content itself with the final act, that was fine, great, in fact. It was a very bitter ending, and it’s good to see a film that doesn’t just force itself to have a Hollywood happy ending. The thing I didn’t like, though, was the way that, after a really emotional scene that had everyone in the cinema holding their breath, the film just sort of…..stops. There’s a quick narration by Tomo, but then it just ends. It felt like it was structured like a sequel hook, yet there’s no sequel that can be made. It sucked all the emotion out of the ending, and left me thinking is that it?.
Private Peaceful is a very well-made film that is spoiled by it’s abrupt and disappointing ending. The flashback framing device works to an extent, but there’s no reason it couldn’t have just been told in a linear fashion, which would have made it more coherent. It’s the kind of film that you enjoy at the time, yet the more you think about it, the more the flaws start to reveal themselves. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t see Private Peaceful, far from it. Just don’t go in expecting a masterpiece.