World War II has practically been wrung for every last drop over the last eighty years, this is a point I’ve been over before, in this very book to be exact.
I agonised a bit over whether to include this film at all; it is after all a television film, not a cinematically released one, which usually puts it out of my purview, but I’m nothing if not a critical maverick, so here it is.
Goodnight Mister Tom is a film I remember from my childhood. It’s one of my dad’s favourite films, and as such we’ve watched it a lot. It brings back pleasant memories for me, which is odd given its subject matter and general atmosphere.
In my last book, I reviewed another film from my childhood that time hasn’t been kind to, so I thought it was only right to look at the other side of that coin.
Curmudgeonly widower Tom Oakley (John Thaw) is forced into taking in a young evacuee from London during the Second World War. As time goes by, Tom starts to warm to the boy, and uncovers the horrible truth about his life back in London.
There are some films which are driven by narrative, and one that is driven by character. Goodnight Mister Tom manages to straddle both of these areas quite deftly, but I’d say its true strength lives in its characters and their relationships.
There isn’t an awful lot of original idea in this film, but it uses the ideas it does have to such profound effect that you forget how often you have seen this arc before. Tom isn’t the first bitter widower in fiction, far from it, but it’s how that bitterness manifests itself in the larger story that makes his character stand out.
Tom is a man given a second chance by a horrible turn of fate; he’s given this chance by the outbreak of a war, given that the First World War is still fresh in his memory, he’s sceptical at first, but the warmth with which both characters later regard each other is enough to win any audience over.
At the forefront of this emotional rollercoaster of a film, is a towering performance from John Thaw, an actor who is often forgotten these days when discussing great British actors of the past, but who possessed such a range and left such a legacy that he is hard to ignore. This is the guy most audiences knew as the rough and tough policeman from The Sweeney, or as the intelligent, but distant Inspector Morse; here he is unrecognisable as a man struggling with multiple emotions, all the while trying to help a child who despite being forced upon him, he is undeniably fond.
Thaw isn’t the only impressive actor here, child actor Nick Robinson is engaging as William Beech, and Annabelle Apsion is fantastic as his sadistically cruel mother.
The use of a small English village as a setting was also inspired, as this familiar setting has a unique atmosphere, one of underlying hostility, and nosiness. Each character has their own agenda, and all are hostile towards Tom at the start, but in a stark parallel to his relationship with William, they warm to him, and accept him as a vital part of the village by the end.
I’ve often said how the best war stories are those that focus on the people affected by the war, the struggles they face, and the relationships they force, be that in the trenches, or over a garden fence. The war is used here as a threatening backdrop to the narrative, something that could threaten the characters at any time, but in the same sense, it is not about the war, it’s about the people caught up in it, and it does it brilliantly.
As a last word, I recently re-watched this film for the purposes of this review, and it struck me how the effect it has hasn’t dulled with age. It still manages to play tricks with my emotions by both warming and breaking my heart in equal measure. It also has one of those film endings that will bring happy tears to a glass eye. It’s a criminally overlooked gem, that I feel deserves another look.