Based on the Michael Morpurgo novel, Private Peaceful unfolds in episodic fashion during the years leading up to and including World War I. Fluctuating between the present and past, and ultimately catching up with itself, the plot is pure archetype, involving three brothers, a love triangle, the passing of a parent, marriage, economic collapse, and a national call to arms. Despite the breadth of life suggested by that description, however, this is an innately small film, and one that uses that smallness to intimate and rewarding ends. Rather than mount a foolhardy effort to create a seamless visual recreation of 1900s England and Belgium, on what was surely a miniscule budget, the filmmakers focus on broad strokes lined with resonant details, such as a shot of a baby walking that feels like something out of The Tree of Life.
The threadbare quality of the film’s production values also prove an admittedly counterintuitive enhancement of its otherwise familiar material: Shot on 16mm and seemingly reliant on strictly natural lighting, it suggests a fusion of a theatrical production’s public-access broadcast and a Dogme 95 film, suffusing the material with a natural poetry, aided in no small part by the mostly excellent cast. It would be a mistake to overlook the advantages of this sort of rough-hewn filmmaking approach, where even the imperfections speak to the inexactness of life, particularly in a time and place where average people confronted great and terrible things. There’s an immense empathy present in these often-unspoken details, and though Private Peaceful never entirely overcomes its reliance on tropes from innumerable other war films (one antagonist in particular is never sufficiently characterized, rendering his presence akin to a mere plot device), by modestly embracing its inherent minimalism and finding the emotions underlying even the most schematic of scenarios, the film taps into something unmistakably human.