British Film Festival Review: Private Peaceful (M) (UK, 2012)

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As we approach the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, it is good for us to be reminded of the terrible and destructive nature of war. The most effective war films are able to give their audiences a tiny taste of what it might have been like to live through those times, as well as making them aware of and honouring what the soldiers had to go through to protect their country. Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo (author of War Horse), Pat O’Connor’sPrivate Peaceful tells a small, intimate story of brotherly love and rivalry, set against the backdrop of WWI.

Thomas ‘Tommo’ Peaceful (George MacKay) is a young soldier stationed in Belgium with his brother Charlie (Jack O’Connell) during WWI. During this time Tommo thinks back on his childhood years, in which he and Charlie worked on the estate of The Colonel (the late Richard Griffiths). This is where both boys fell in love with the same girl, Molly (Alexandra Roach). The film follows the boys as they grow up and eventually enlist to become soldiers. Their friendship is strained by their competition for Molly’s love and the horrors of war.

Here we have a war film that is not concerned with the technicalities of war, but rather the toll that it takes on the soldiers and their loved ones. The earlier scenes of Tommo and Charlie’s childhood and adolescence are believable and affecting. The bond that the brothers share is perfectly portrayed and developed throughout the film. Director O’Conner is careful to make sure that we care for the Peaceful brothers before they go to war, making their experiences all the more moving. This may seem like a no-brainer, but even Spielberg’s adaptation of War Horse (2011) made the fatal mistake of failing to include even one character that the audience could care about. Private Peaceful is easily a much more effective film in terms of character development.

MacKay and O’Connell deliver a pair of fine performances, and they are totally convincing as brothers. Also impressive are Samuel Bottomley and Hero Fiennes-Tiffin as the younger incarnations of the characters, with Bottomley in particular having to portray some incredibly complex emotions. Roach is a lovely presence as Molly, even though her character is a tad underdeveloped. But perhaps the most memorable performance in the film comes from Eline Powell, who appears in two brief scenes as Anna, a kitchen hand who takes a liking to Tommo. The resolution of her story makes for one of the most moving scenes in the film.

Ultimately, Private Peaceful is about the absurdity and pointless nature of war. A scene in which the Peaceful brothers and their fellow soldiers are ordered to charge the German line in what is essentially a suicide mission is particularly harrowing. Charlie’s choices in this scene bring to light the ridiculous standards set upon the soldiers, particularly ones so young. Private Peaceful does not glorify war at all; it tackles the injustice of ordering young men to give their lives for fruitless campaigns. What remains after the fighting has stopped is a touching bond between two brothers.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Runtime: 102 Minutes

Private Peaceful screened nationally as part of the 2013 British Film Festival.