A little sick of Harry Potter at this point? Had it up to here with the wave-a-wand approach to adolescence? Have I got a boy for you. Despite doctor's orders, there...
A little sick of Harry Potter at this point? Had it up to here with the wave-a-wand approach to adolescence? Have I got a boy for you.
Despite doctor’s orders, there are good excuses to lie around comatose on Thanksgiving night. No. 1 is BBC America’s delightfully intelligent “Tom Brown’s Schooldays.”
The two-hour film, airing at 6 and 10 p.m. Thursday, is based on Thomas Hughes’ 1857 classic about a boy’s years at the English public school Rugby. The novel blended fiction and fact: Its heroes are the make-believe Tom and real-life Rugby headmaster Dr. Thomas Arnold, who famously reformed a vicious system.
Hughes’ book had enormous influence for generations. You can draw a direct line from Tom and Dr. Arnold to J.K. Rowling’s Harry and Professor Dumbledore, which is partly why “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” makes excellent family viewing.
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But I confess to liking Tom Brown more than Harry Potter, both as individual and object lesson in the trials of growing up. Tom succumbs to good and bad influences in an effort to fit, and his assimilationist tendencies ring truer than the exotically superior Harry.
As for Dr. Arnold and Professor Dumbledore — sorry, but when the brilliant Stephen Fry tackles the role of early-Victorian savior, I can put even Michael Gambon on hold.
Not that Arnold is exactly like Dumbledore; he’s more complicated and human. In his effort to instill a higher set of values for the boys, Arnold makes mistakes, a possibility widely accepted in today’s era of apologetic parenting but radical for the 1850s.
In Thursday’s opener, 11-year-old Tom and Dr. Arnold arrive at Rugby simultaneously. Tom (Alex Pettyfer) is taken under the wing of the small and shrewd East (Harry Michell) while Arnold informs a startled staff that he is about to change things: No longer will masters confine their involvement to lessons while the boys construct their own society.
One master replies that the status quo is fine. “They are the riotous natives, we are the occupying force,” he announces, to nodding agreement.
A particularly violent and enthralling game of rugby underscores his point. Tom impulsively joins in at a critical moment and is congratulated by the popular older boy who is captain of the schoolhouse.
But Tom also acquires a nemesis in the form of a sneering upperclassman named Flashman (Joseph Beattie).
Flashman embodies the cowardly bully. He’s good-looking and charming enough to attract minions to execute his sadistic impulses, a number of which are vividly depicted here. He uses his wealthy father’s endowments to Rugby as a shield.
Flashman is one of the great knaves of English literature. Maybe it’s the pitch-perfect name — all style, no substance — or the early portrait of aristocratic corruption. At any rate, Flashman was resurrected more than 100 years later in a series of novels by George MacDonald Fraser, the latest of which (“Flashman on the March”) just came out.
The Flashman of this film is no Voldemort. Like everyone in “Tom Brown’s Schooldays,” he’s given enough dimension to be an example of “There but for the grace of (check your pantheistic choice) go I.”
How is this accomplished? In the plot’s best stroke, Tom stands up to Flashman — and then becomes a miniature version of him. He forms his own mob. Tom embraces all the rituals of Rugby, and that’s the problem.
Hughes knew what he was up to. The movie’s adaptation makes it even clearer by eliminating most of the book’s Christian proselytizing in favor of a more karmic approach.
Tom comes a cropper when he turns liar and thief. But the discovery of his crime also is a revelation of failure for Dr. Arnold. “This place has poisoned him,” he tells his wife (Jemma Redgrave). The reforms that he’s been trying to cajole from the staff require immediate and autocratic action.
A further spur is the discovery that Flashman has seduced the daughter of a Rugby watchman. (It’s a movie invention that doesn’t happen in the book, where Flashman is kicked out for drinking.)
Dr. Arnold uses a more persuasive method to bring the stubborn Tom around. He places a fragile and independent-minded boy named Arthur under Tom’s care.
Tom is first baffled, then moved, by Arthur’s refusal to conform: “It’d be a dull old world if we all had to be the same, wouldn’t it, Tom?”
The climax of the movie is a fight between Tom and Flashman after Flashman puts Arthur down a well. Looking at the battle from his office, Dr. Arnold refuses to interfere.
Flashman wins by using brass knuckles, but his influence is broken. The boys have learned to think for themselves.
This — minus magic, special effects and a thunderous proclamation of good against evil — is the lesson of “Tom Brown’s Schooldays.” It’s a nice break from Hollywood, and it’s nice to have Tom as well as Harry.
TV Notes: 1933’s “King Kong” was an amazing movie. And it was nothing compared with its creator. To learn why, see Turner Class Movies’ Tuesday night documentary, “I’m King Kong: The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper.” Airing at 5 and 8 p.m., it unfolds Cooper’s spectacular life as aviator, soldier, adventurer and filmmaker. They don’t make men like this anymore.
Kay McFadden: firstname.lastname@example.org