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Television Review

A stellar Kipling tale of war, guilt

From left: Daniel Radcliffe, Kim Cattrall, and David Haig in 'My Boy Jack,' a story about Rudyard Kipling and his family. From left: Daniel Radcliffe, Kim Cattrall, and David Haig in "My Boy Jack," a story about Rudyard Kipling and his family. (Patrick Redmond/PBS via associated press)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / April 18, 2008

If you think Daniel Radcliffe will never be able to shake off Harry Potter, see "My Boy Jack," the newest film in PBS's "Masterpiece" series. As Jack Kipling, the son of writer Rudyard Kipling, Radcliffe is superb - a tightly wound young man who joins in World War I despite abominable eyesight. He is notably un-Harry-like.

But even if you don't care about Radcliffe, see "My Boy Jack," airing Sunday at 9 p.m. on Channel 2. See it for its most extraordinary performance, by David Haig as an impassioned Rudyard Kipling. See it for the perfectly concise script, written by Haig and based on his 1997 play, as it delivers the Kipling family fully realized. And see the movie for its restrained but deeply heartfelt take on war, on the loss of soldiers, and, most of all, on guilt. "My Boy Jack" is the kind of little gem that affirms "Masterpiece" as a worthy TV showcase.

Kipling was a vocal supporter of the British Empire on the eve of World War I, and Haig gives us a man whose imperialism is flagrant yet not quite bloodthirsty. As rigid and ideological as Kipling was, Haig never makes him seem anything less than human. He delivers a really uncanny performance, believably encompassing both jingoism and sensitivity, bull-headedness and childlike giddiness. One minute Kipling is delivering alarmist speeches about German aggression to packed houses, painting images of blood flowing on local streets and women being raped; the next he's spinning kooky, delicate jungle stories for an audience of kids.

Kipling wants Jack to serve, and Jack dutifully plays along, suppressing his own fears. Radcliffe clenches his jaw and subtly lets us know that while Jack yesses his father and seems gung-ho, he is swallowing his terror. After Jack fails his military-induction eye exam twice, Rudyard pulls in a favor and gets his son to the front lines before he turns 18. Jack's mother, Carrie (Kim Cattrall), and his sister, Elsie (Carey Mulligan), are furious; "It will be your fault if Jack is killed," Elsie yells at her father. But Kipling is a man of principle, and he is committed to the war and the "family of nations" of which he sees Britain as the parent.

Cattrall fits in successfully as Kipling's American-born wife, who knows she is heading into sorrow. When I realized Cattrall was in the cast, I feared her "Sex and the City" aura would undercut the period atmosphere. But, like Radcliffe, she blends in with the story, the time, and the warm Kipling family unit. Kipling calls young Jack "Old Man," and Jack addresses his parents as "Dear Old Things" in his letters from the war. It's an affectionate little system, which makes its coming difficulties all the more ominous and moving.

The movie follows Jack to the Battle of Loos, in 1915, where director Brian Kirk conveys the dread and bravery in the trenches grimly and effectively. The soldiers know they're running into death, but they go, Jack leading them with a whistle in his mouth. Days later, a telegram notifies the Kiplings that Jack is missing, and presumed injured. And so begins the family's tenacious fight to discover the fate of Jack, and Rudyard Kipling's journey into regret and sorrow.

" 'Have you news of my boy Jack?' " goes the Kipling poem that gives the movie its title. "Not this tide./ 'When d'you think that he'll come back?'/ Not with this wind blowing, and this tide." As the story that led to Kipling's words, the movie is a beautifully bittersweet prelude.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

My Boy Jack

Starring: David Haig, Daniel Radcliffe, Kim Cattrall, Carey Mulligan

On: PBS, Channel 2

Time: Sunday night, 9-10:30

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