There are some authors whose names become so iconic that one may too easily forget there was an actual human being, with an actual history, attached thereto. One of these is Rudyard Kipling, who even while he was alive became almost a brand name for exotic adventure stories, a reputation probably only enhanced since his death in 1936 with such stellar film adaptations as some of the various Jungle Books (notably the Korda-Sabu version, which is at the top of my "where's Criterion when you really need them?" list), Gunga Din, and The Man Who Would Be King and lesser, though certainly enjoyable, fare like the Errol Flynn-Dean Stockwell Kim. What becomes obvious fairly quickly in this superb filming of star and playwright David Haig's My Boy Jack is that Kipling himself was only too aware of his influence and power, both of which became double-edged swords with the advent of World War I.
For anyone who has read Kipling's elegiac poem "My Boy Jack," from which the original play and this ITV television adaptation gain their name, the basic outline (or at least outcome) of the story is going to be no surprise. But you know what? It really doesn't matter, as the impeccably fine character work of Haig as Kipling, Daniel Radcliffe as Kipling's son John (affectionately known as Jack), and especially a brilliant Kim Cattrall as Kipling's American wife Caroline make the going itself simply dazzling from the first scene to the last. Cattrall is unbelievably good in a role that is so distant from her work on Sex and the City that you may be forgiven for thinking there are two actresses with this same name. Sporting a brunette wig, and alternately reserved and dogmatic, she gives the film a lot of the heart it has, but always in a splendidly underplayed way that doesn't call attention to itself.
Jack Kipling had the misfortune to not only be the son of one of the staunchest imperialists and ra-ra warmongerers around, he was also beset with a debilitating case of myopia, which should have let him out of active service with no problem (and he was indeed rejected by both the Navy and the Army, amply portrayed here). That wouldn't stop Rudyard, who thought any basically able-bodied boy should be fighing for King and country and little things like not being able to see be damned. It's fascinating to watch this portrayal of British society circa 1914, when the rabid call to arms was simply thought to be "good sport," and Kipling as the head cheerleader was looked on as a national standard-bearer despite the gut-wrenching losses of English troops early in the fighting.
The family dynamic portrayed in this film is absolutely first-rate, with the married thrust-and-parry between Haig and Cattrall realistic and nuanced, and Radcliffe's desperation to prove himself in both his father's and nation's eyes virtually palpable. It's certainly fun to see Radcliffe essaying a character who can't pull out a magic wand to make his problems disappear, and he does a good job evoking this boy who will do anything to make good in the "Great War," such as affixing putty to his glasses to keep them stuck on his head while he fires his rifle. Radcliffe has had the dubious distinction of learning to act in front of millions (simply witness the difference in his abilities between the first and latest Potter films), and there is no doubt that he is maturing into a really fine and versatile performer who will no doubt be a headliner for the rest of his life.
David Haig is simply amazing in his portrayal of Kipling, a good man caught up in world events that simply wouldn't conform to his preconceived notions of how they should go. From the blustery opening scenes to the eventual denouement when guilt and self-recrimination take over, Haig does arguably the finest work of his career in My Boy Jack. He's certainly no slouch as a writer, either, with his screenplay full of wonderful moments, like the various interplays between Kipling, King George, Carrie and Jack, all of which ring exceedingly true. The tragedy of the outcome is highlighted by the fact that Haig portrays Kipling as a decent, if somewhat deluded, man who watches world events overtake his pristine and lavish lifestyle, wreaking devestation in his personal life, a suitable metaphor for what was happening to thousands of upper-crust British families.
The production design, scoring and direction are also for the most part absolutely top-notch. As is usual in my pet peeve department, I could have done without the occasional jiggling hand-held camera to simulate "you are there" action, or the patently bizarre and isolated fast zooms that pop up in one or two scenes, but this production has the patina of a much larger-budgeted feature film than I'm sure its relatively paltry television funding really afforded it, and everyone associated with the film should be very proud of how excellent it looks and sounds.
My Boy Jack is certainly one of the most literate, thought-provoking, and finely performed television productions I've had the pleasure of seeing recently, and it does its subjects proud with its elegant and eloquent portrayal of a society and individuals at a crossroads.
The enhanced 1.78:1 image is superb, with good clarity and excellent, if muted, color and saturation.
A lot of attention has obviously been paid to the sound design on this film, which will be apparent from the opening "tick, tick, tick" of the clock, to the later action sequences. The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack has good separation and fidelity, esepcially for a television feature. There are English subtitles available.
There are interviews with Haig, Cattrall and Radcliffe, as well as some deleted scenes.
Every so often a nice little filmic surprise shows up that will easily knock your socks off and give you not only a lot to look at, but also to think about. My Boy Jack has the sort of epic sweep and intimacy of David Lean's finest work and if you're a fan of historical drama, you won't be disappointed. Highly recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet