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A breed apart

Movies | British film returns the Lassie story to its classic roots

Issue: "Stealth care," Sept. 16, 2006

Mention the name "Lassie," and most people will think of the 1950s television program. That show is both beloved and derided, the writers going to the dog-saves-the-day well perhaps one too many times.

"[Bark!] What's that Lassie? [Bark!] Timmy's in trouble? [Bark!] He's fallen into some quicksand? [Bark!] OK, you lead the way girl! [Bark, Bark!]"

Aside from the title character's name and breed, though, the television show has little to do with Lassie Come-Home, Eric Knight's 1938 children's novel. It is back to this original text that a new British film production of the story, Lassie (PG for some mild violent content and language), returns. The new film is a thoroughly welcome homecoming, featuring a stellar cast, lush Scottish scenery, and the sort of measured, intelligent storytelling sorely lacking from most children's entertainment.

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Prior to countless adaptations and successors, Knight's book was filmed faithfully at least once before, in the 1943 classic Lassie Come Home. Just as in that film and the original text, the new Lassie takes place in prewar England. Young Joe (Jonathan Mason) is the proud owner of Lassie. But when Joe's father (John Lynch) loses his job, Joe's father and mother (Samantha Morton) decide to sell Lassie to the cantankerous Duke of Rudling (Peter O'Toole) in order to survive.

And so begins Lassie's long ordeal, as she seeks to return to her true family. A few short-lived escape attempts precede the Duke's move to his Scottish manor, which takes Lassie clear across the kingdom from Joe. Lassie has an ally, though, in Priscilla (Hester Odgers), a young granddaughter in the Duke's care who also longs to return home and who sets Lassie on course for her final break for freedom.

If there's a criticism to be made of Lassie, it's that the supporting characters are so well written and played that the central relationship, between Lassie and Joe, gets muted. It's also worth noting that the PG rating reflects a characteristic British coarseness that involves some bad language and an honest approach to the harsh realities of life, but is a far cry from the boorish vulgarity that is common on this side of the pond.

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