Years ago, you never heard much about the evacuation of children to the countryside when London was under attack during World War II. Lately, though, film versions of fictional accounts are shedding light on what families endured during the government-mandated separation. It wasn’t a bureaucratic act of cruelty. It was an act of desperation to protect the future of a nation. London was pounded by Nazi aerial attacks from September 1940 through May 1941, during which an estimated 15,000 to 50,000 Londoners lost their lives. But while “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” went off in the direction of fantasy, this account of surviving the Blitz from the point of view of two evacuated children keeps it real.
The 2003 BBC production casts two children who are as average-looking as can be, and frankly that adds a lot to the realistic cachet. If it were a Hollywood production, it would be slick as a ski slope with the most darling faces since Shirley Temple. But Keeley Fawcett (“At Home with the Braithwaites”) has the kind of face that represents all the thousands of children who boarded trains for the English countryside in order to be taken in by rural families until the danger to their London homes had passed. As a 14 year old with a younger brother in tow who looks a bit like Harry Potter might have at age eight, she handles herself with the grace of someone who knows that their wartime experience, though pastoral by comparison, is still less than idyllic. Like their parents—an officer in the Navy and a volunteer ambulance driver in London—they need to sacrifice for the good of the nation and survive for the good of the family.
Filmed almost exclusively in Wales, “Carrie’s War” features beautiful photography of the Welsh countryside. But the entire production has a rich, warm look and feel to it which was recognized by critics. “Carrie’s War” won BAFTA awards for best costume, design, make-up, and soundtrack.
If I had to sum up the tone of this picture in one word, it would be “poignant”—a bittersweet, slow-paced story that is quietly touching. When the children get off the train and sit in a public area waiting to be “adopted” and you watch them chosen at the last, you can’t help but think about what those children might be feeling. And when they are selected by a timid woman named Lou (Lesley Sharp) and brought home to live with the woman and her brother, whom she tells them to call “Mr. Evans,” you feel again for the children who must be abnormally well-behaved or lose their wartime home. No matter what this gruff sourpuss and rule-monger says, the kids have to bite their tongues and obey. Hmmmm, I can hear parents thinking to themselves. This sounds like a good family movie, one which will show children what kids have to do to curb their naturally bubbly, inquisitive, and (yes) wild behavior. And truthfully, this does make for a good family film—though children under eight may be as bored as young Nick (Jack Stanley).
As storeowner Mr. Evans, Alun Armstrong looks a bit like a thin Robert Morley and has the same mean and sour outlook. When young Nick can’t resist one of the biscuits at the store and helps himself, he’s about to be beaten for it when his sister intervenes. Instead, he ends up on his knees next to a kneeling Mr. Evans who prays aloud for the boy’s terrible behavior to stop. It’s not exactly a “Carrie” situation, but this fellow is a piece of work. When the children arrive they’re led upstairs but are cautioned not to step on the white cloth that’s protecting the rug runner that runs down the middle of the steps. Instead, they’re to walk up and down those stair a minimum of times, spread-legged so that they don’t step on the carpeted area. On Sundays, the only thing they can do is read the Bible. Rules like that are stifling, of course, but the children’s world opens up when they’re asked to go to a house named Druid’s Bottom to get a Christmas goose. At this ancient manor house they meet Mr. Evans’ estranged sister, Mrs. Gotobed, who looks and acts a bit like an ancient movie star who remembers what it was like to be glamorous. In her closet she has 29 gowns that her husband bought for her—one for every year they were married—and she tells Carrie that she is wearing each of them once more before she dies.
It’s at Druid’s Bottom where a young man Carrie met on the train, Albert Sandwich (Eddie Cooper) ends up, cared for by Ms. Evans’ caretaker, a woman said to be a witch. But there’s nothing witch-like about Hepzibah Green (Pauline Quirke, “The Sculptress”) and there’s nothing dumb about the one folks call “the idiot”—young Mr. Johnny (Jamie Beddard) whom she’s taken in.
Though there’s potential to go off in the same fantasy vein as the other Blitz stories, “Carrie’s War” stays with realism. The only thing remotely magical here is a skull and a legend, but nothing out-of-the-ordinary happens with it. Likewise, when you have a 14-year-old girl and a young man that she likes, you’d expect that this story could go off in the direction of a coming-of-age tale. But here too, nothing much is developed. I haven’t read the novel by Nina Bawden upon which this film is based, so I can’t say whether this was a decision made by the filmmakers. But it seems to me that more could have happened with both genres that this film flirts with—the fantasy and the coming-of-age novel. The result is that it steers a pretty straight course through realism, and keeps things always temptingly shy of having something major happen. Is that a flaw? That depends on who’s watching, I suppose. Same with the framework, which strikes me as clumsy. The opening voiceover establishes that we’re hearing an adult Carrie reach back into her memory and tell us about the time she spent with the Evans’ in Wales. But when Carrie and her brother board the train again and we think the film is over, suddenly that voiceover narrator is shown on-camera with her own children, and we have an ending that seems intrusive and contrived.
Those are the shortcomings of “Carrie’s War.” The positives are the acting, the photography, and the look and feel of this period film.
Video: There’s a slight graininess throughout, and the colors are muted—a subdued palette that one suspects may have been deliberate, to add an aged look. The contrast level is lower than we’re used to, again, perhaps, the give the illusion of age. “Carrie’s War” is presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
Audio: The audio is English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, and it’s pretty decent, though most of the sound comes through the front center speaker.
Extras: There are no extras, other than access to the Masterpiece Theatre Web site.
Bottom Line: It’s hard to go wrong with a “Masterpiece Theatre” production, and “Carrie’s War” carries on in the tradition of solid, intelligent dramas that have been broadcast in that series. But you can’t help but think that, with just a little more development, this could have been even more rewarding.