The supernaturally intelligent collie returns to the big screen in this handsome, period piece by Charles Sturridge (Fairy Tale: A True Story (1997)). In a break from tradition, the hitherto cross-dressing canine is finally played by an actual female. In 1930s West Yorkshire, poverty stricken Sam (John Lynch) and Sarah Carraclough (Samantha Morton) are forced to sell their son Joe’s (Jonathan Mason) beloved Lassie when the imperious Duke (Peter O’Toole) wants her for his granddaughter, Cilla (Hester Odgers). Lassie repeatedly runs away to rejoin Joe, but is caught and caged, winning sympathy from kind-hearted Cilla. After a brutal beating from the kennel keeper (League of Gentlemen star Steve Pemberton), Lassie escapes again, this time with Cilla’s help, as she begins her eventful, arduous journey home.
Sturridge brings a surprisingly epic sweep to the production, with aerial shots gliding across the stunning Scottish scenery and a stirring, orchestral soundtrack. He largely avoids the cloying sentimentality of Lassie’s TV incarnations, mixing the cosy, Sunday afternoon feel of the MGM movies with sturdier, class-driven drama. It isn’t quite Ken Loach, but earthy performances from Samantha Morton and young Jonathan Mason keep the human drama compelling from start to finish. Attempts to parallel Lassie’s journey with Cilla’s struggles in boarding school feel a little strained, but do raise an intriguing theme about individuality ground down by adverse circumstance (poverty, WW2), and young Hester Odgers proves a winning discovery. After a slow start, the film picks up pace with some familiar faces popping up throughout Lassie’s memorable adventures. These include Edward Fox and Nicholas Ball as a couple of eccentric Nessie hunters (plus a brief, startling appearance from the monster itself! Surely, a Lassie movie first!); Gregor Fisher as a rambunctious dogcatcher; Kelly Macdonald as a caring dog-lover who finds romance along the way; Robert Hardy as a judge whose court case is disrupted by Lassie; and a moving sequence with Peter Dinklage as a wandering puppeteer who falls foul of thief, Nicholas Lyndhurst.
It all culminates in a snowy, candle-lit Christmas finale where O’Toole (magnificent as always) proves himself the saviour of both our canine heroine and the Carracloughs, much to his granddaughter’s delight. Endearingly, the Duke clings onto a façade of self-interest, being too cantankerous to admit to a good deed. Youngsters and the young at heart will undoubtedly relish the closing combination of puppies, smiling kids, green hills and sunny skies, while even the more cynical must acknowledge this forgoes crassness in favour of sincerity. Superior family fare.