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  Tarka the Otter Is It Otter In Here?
Year: 1979
Director: David Cobham
Stars: Peter Ustinov, Spade the Otter, Peter Bennett, Edward Underdown, Brenda Cavendish, John Leeson, Reg Lye, George Waring, Stanley Lebor, Max Faulkner
Genre: AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: North Devon, the year of 1927, and nature is proceeding apace as it does every season. It is spring, so one female otter is ready to give birth, just as the other animals by the river are breeding, and soon little Tarka (Spade the Otter) is born. His mother will do anything to protect him, even standing up to the otter hunters and their dogs, one of whom is Deadlock, a fearsome hound which relishes the thought of killing the animals. However, he will have to wait for another time because his masters move him on, recognising the otter is taking care of its offspring...

Henry Williamson wrote the famous book Tarka the Otter, but it took fifty years or so for the title to be adapted for the big screen. It was director David Cobham who came up with the script, writing with a naturalist also celebrated for his animal stories, Gerald Durrell, and while the result could have been a cutesy revel in all things twitchy and furry, it was actually more intent in showing the audience nature red in tooth and claw. Tarka's father is killed off barely ten minutes in, thanks to the ravenous jaws of Deadlock, making this not a film to show to sensitive otters.

Or sensitive animal lovers for that matter; take a scene early on where a little vole noses through the undergrowth. Before you get the chance to say "Aww..." the critter has been killed by a passing owl, as if to illustrate that while these creatures may have been allowed personalities, they're still going to be at the mercy of not only the elements but whatever is hungry and in the neighbourhood. Only the humans hunt for sport, and while Tarka and his mother avoid their attentions after their initial encounter, come the following year they won't be quite so lucky.

As it turns out, Tarka's mother ends up shot dead by a gamekeeper and hung from a fence, blood dripping from her muzzle, another example of how the film rubs the viewers' noses in the harshness of country life. But Tarka does quite well for himself, travelling downriver and feasting on migrating eels as he goes until he reaches the beach where he gets crabs. To eat. Along the way he avoids poachers and meets a lady otter, but has to fend off the attentions of a much bigger otter which scares him off; not to worry, they do meet again, a rare instance of sentimentality ensuring that true love wins out in an aquatic mammal kind of way.

This is all very well in its cycle of life fashion, but you can see that on just about every nature documentary on television, so this film has an ace up its sleeve. Remember Deadlock? Well, he remembers Tarka and the final third of the story is taken up with our hero's efforts to avoid capture by the otter hunt, which is much the same as a fox hunt and no less cruel. Cobham keeps us on Tarka's side all the way, unusually after all that "what will be will be" approach informing the rest of the film, but makes for a tense climax to what could have been just another natural history documentary. Tarka evades his pursuers, keeping one step ahead until... a curiously ambiguous ending, although we're left in no doubt that the nasty Deadlock has had a shock. The otter strikes back! If that's possible. Music by David Fanshawe.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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