THE TITLE character in this entertaining British adventure film is the glue that holds the story together – despite his being hanged in the opening sequence.
No, this isn’t a ghost story; it’s a mid-18th century classic based on the book by Leon Garfield and translated to film by Ken Loach (“The Wind that Shakes the Barley,” 2006). It won the Cannes Film Critics award and is the inspiration for Wes Anderson’s AFI Best Movie of the Year winner, “Moonrise Kingdom.”
Set in Yorkshire, we open on hanging day – a public entertainment of the time. Instead of showing Black Jack and his fellow “sinners,” which include a woman holding her baby, dying by the noose – the camera focuses on the clergyman praying for those about to depart. Then the credits roll. That’s how Loach and cinematographer Chris Menges (“The Killing Fields”) display the more gruesome realities of the time, including grave robbing and murder. Black Jack (Jean Franval), a huge Frenchman and a sailor, earns his handle because the English can’t pronounce his given name. He pops back to life inside his coffin set up in a local tavern, having partially swallowed a small spoon to keep the rope from breaking his neck.
That he knows such tricks gives us a hint of his not-so-sterling personality. He might have accidentally killed a man in a brawl, but he’s no innocent. That would be Tolly (Stephen Hirst), a young draper’s apprentice, who’s been drafted to guard the body while the tavern keeper rushes off to round up the dead man’s sailor friends for a last farewell – or so she says. (We get back to her again by the end of the tale.)
In his escape, Black Jack kidnaps Tolly, dragging him along to be his interpreter and assistant. Tolly, the real hero of the story, is not big on crime and tries to get Black Jack to go right: “It’s easier to be good,” he says with good-natured practicality. Tolly soon becomes guardian to Belle Carter (Louise Cooper), who has more wandered off than run away from the doctors taking her to an insane asylum. She’s had a bad time of it, left in a mental haze after recovering from a high fever. Her wealthy parents have decided to send her away rather than risk discovery and the ruin of an older daughter’s marriage. They don’t want the groom’s family to think insanity runs in their family.
That’s one of the plot twists in “Black Jack,” so be prepared to explain the times to younger viewers. Black Jack in particular is afraid of this wisp of a girl, warning Tolly that “she’ll strangle you in your sleep.” It’s how people reacted then. Eventually, the trio joins up with a traveling carnival with a more sympathetic disposition. (You’ll find some of the dwarfs from “Time Bandits,” 1981, here – a nice plus.)
The detail in presenting the values and practices of the time – as well as the historical detail – is captivating. Even the dialogue is authentic, “without being totally archaic” as Loach informs in his commentary in which he tells as much about the times as he does making the film. It’s a splendid job all around and easy to see why the movie has become a classic in Great Britain. (Think of films like "Treasure Island" and "Johnny Tremaine," but with its own unique story.) This is the first time “Black Jack” has been made available in the United States. Bravo!
The film has been restored for its 35th anniversary by Cohen Media Group. The picture looks soft, yet the overall effect is deliberate, harkening to adventure yarns of old. A comparison of the original trailer and the 2013 trailer shows the enhancements. The restoration isn't exactly perfect; we still see some spots and blemishes. Sound is decent, although I was grateful for English subtitles since the dialects sometimes made dialogue incomprehensible. There’s little music throughout, but the traditional score by Bob Pegg is a winner.
A few deleted scenes are among the extras, a change made by Loach in 2010 when he decided to shorten the film for his director’s cut. There’s also an enclosed booklet by film critic and scholar Peter Tonguette that recaps the plot from beginning to end. If you don’t want spoilers, avoid it until after watching.
Recommended family viewing. — Kay Reynolds