A version of this review appeared in The Age, March 9, 2006.
Generations who remember Lassie as the star of a long-running US TV series may not be aware that the heroic collie originally hailed from Yorkshire by birth as well as descent. She returns to her roots in this new film, written and directed by UK heritage specialist Charles Sturridge: it's a straight adaptation of Eric Knight's 1942 novel Lassie Come Home, first brought to the screen in 1943 and the basis for the whole Lassie phenomenon.
While Knight's love of dogs is plain on every page of his novel, Lassie Come Home is also a story about class. Handsome, intelligent and loyal, Lassie is a physical and spiritual aristocrat who nonetheless makes her home in a poor coal-mining village. When her owners fall on hard times, they're forced to sell her to the Duke of Rudling (played here by Peter O'Toole) an irascible old buffer who has his own interest in "breeding". Lassie is transported to Scotland, but escapes and sets out by herself on the road home, meeting a variety of friends and foes along the way.
This is a difficult story to get wrong. Fred M. Wilcox's 1943 version is simple but perfectly scaled, concentrating on Lassie's heroic journey and giving her ample space and time to dominate the screen. Indeed, the most memorable sequences are those without human actors – Lassie leaping a fence, swimming a turbulent river, or taking shelter in a cave and gazing mutely at a flock of sheep.
The new Lassie lacks this purity: Sturridge concentrates more on the human melodrama, and ramps up proceedings with spectacular scenery, emphatic editing and newly invented subplots. It's the eve of the Second World War, and men at all social levels are signing up for the army. Meanwhile the Duke's granddaughter Cilla (Hester Odgers) is sent away to boarding school, where she plans her own daring escape.
On its own terms, the film is intelligently sentimental – and rarely patronising to its child audience, unlike much "family entertainment". Sturridge evidently feels at home in the period to the point of conservative nostalgia, only faintly satirising a social order where dogs, working men and aristocrats all have their proper place. Happily Lassie herself (or rather the dog who plays her) remains innocent of any possible implications; whatever fictional dangers threaten, you can still see her panting cheerfully, waiting to be fed.