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A Separate Peace

A Separate Peace
2004 / Color / 1:33 flat full frame / 91 min. / Street Date February 8, 2005 / 24.99
Starring J Barton, Toby Moore, Jacob Pitts, Danny Swerdlow
Cinematography Checco Varese
Production Designer Doug McCullough
Art Direction Marion Pon
Film Editor Toby Yates
Written by Wendy Kesselman from novel by John Knowles
Produced by Armand Leo
Directed by Peter Yates

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

John Knowles' perceptive novel is a standard text in high school and college and was well-received as a feature by Larry Peerce in 1972. Other boarding-school movies tend to be about conformity and rebellion, but this story concerns itself with bonding, loss and the meaning of friendship. The boys of Devon prep school learn and work under the knowledge that they'll more likely than not be drafted immediately upon graduation, a fact that puts an odd feeling of urgency and desperation behind their hale 'n hearty rituals and pranks.


In the middle of WW2, Southerner Gene (J Barton) falls in with an eccentric crowd when his good grades get him into Devon prep school in New England. "Leper" (Danny Swerdlow) is an amiable joker who has a snail-arium and talks about trying to find beaver lodges out in the woods. Brinker (Jacob Pitts) is the brains of the outfit as well as being the most conventionally outgoing; Gene does his best to outdo him scholastically. But the problem friend is Gene's new roommate Finny (Toby Moore), a militantly personable fellow who thinks rules are to be broken and is in favor of things like secret societies. Popular and outgoing, Finny gets Gene to climb a dangerous (and forbidden) tree to dive into the lake. He also gets him to cut class and seems to be using his powerful personality to distract Gene from his studies. The boys develop an ambivalent attitude to the war and some consider enlisting, while Gene becomes unhappy with Finny's control over his behavior and attitudes - Finny's the kind of guy who can't be reasoned with. Finally, something inside Gene rebels.

A Separate Peace is an interesting adaptation of a novel that's obviously more complex and detailed. Wendy Kesselman's convincing script and Peter Yates' superior handling of actors make up for an underpopulated production.

Perhaps due to the needs of cable-movie marketing, this version of the film misleads us into thinking that something homoerotic is going on with the boys in Devon. If there is, it's a buried subtext. The Peerce version used a flashback sequence to fixate the audience on the role of the ill-fated tree by the lake; this 2004 Showtime movie (filmed in 2002) teases us instead with a flash-forward to the beginning of a sinister midnight trial within a secret society in Devon prep school. Roommates Gene and Finny are rousted from bed for what later proves to be an improvised crime investigation, but the impression given (unless Savant has flipped) is that the inquisition will accuse them as lovers.

That's not the case at all, technically, although the story's subtle explanation of how one personality can affect another does takes on the issue of domination and peer pressure. If this wasn't from a noted book, it might remind us of a less perverse version of Jack Garfein's The Strange One, the twisted movie with Ben Gazarra as a military school tyrant. Quiet Gene wants to be accepted at the snooty school and at first welcomes Finny's friendly overtures. Only later does he resent his pattern of compliant surrender to Finny's will. The confident Finny is soon dictating their activities as if there were something exclusive about their relationship.

At the center of the tale is the forbidden jumping tree, which couldn't be more symbolic if Finney plucked an apple from it and offered a bite to Gene. Gene doesn't know how to say No to this character. He eventually experiences a crucial lapse in judgment and expresses his need for psychological freedom in a dangerous way.

This will all be old news to those who have read the book, and I'll go no further to protect those who would like to experience the story developments without spoilers.

Bringing all of this subtle-between the lines content to the surface where it needs to be is no easy task that A Separate Peace manages well, thanks to sensitive direction from Yates (of Bullitt, Breaking Away and The Dresser) and great performances from four lesser-known actors, all under twenty. J Barton does a good job of not seeming stupid or a pushover as Gene and Jacob Pitts is the forceful Brinker. Danny Swerdlow is pathetic as the troubled Leper, the kind of sincere but tragically vulnerable type we've all met. Best of all is Toby Moore's Finny, a handsome guy with a personality that really needs a tranquilizer. Masking any number of inner confusions, Finny compensates by expanding his influence over Gene.

For star recognition, A Separate Peace uses Hume Cronyn in almost his last role in a glorified bit as an aged instructor. We concentrate almost entirely on the boys; if anything, Devon comes off as a disorganized place in need of minimal supervision. Students flaunt the rules (the off-limits tree) and hold secret meetings in the dark of night. An ex-student haunts the place, sneaking in to steal food. Nobody questions why another student keeps having suspicious accidents.

Paramount's DVD of A Separate Peace is a good encoding of a cable TV movie that clearly was filmed for the full-screen aspect ratio. Color and sound are fine. There aren't any extras, even though the movie raises our curiosity about both the Knowles book and the capable young cast.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, A Separate Peace rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 27, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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