The heroes are thieves, the local policeman and doctor are both corrupt and the headmaster is a drunk. And these are the good guys! One could also argue that the bad guy is a victim of classicism.
Yes folks, it can only be a film adaptation of a Roald Dahl book, the biggest stalwart of the few remaining bastions that stand against that oncoming, sanitising tsunami that is political correctness and modern thinking.
Is it possible to administer a knighthood or peerage posthumously? If so, I'd like to recommend Dahl for one.
Samuel Johnson noted that the most truthful people in society are children, and thus it is no surprise when you find that a man who died nineteen years ago and set most of his books in societies of yesteryear, is still one of the most popular authors among kids the world over.
Kids know rubbish when they see and hear it, no matter how much inconvenience it causes adults. As a result, the sort of story that is totally free of PC claptrap and suitably dark in the right places, scores very highly with them.
This particular adaptation is one of those rare creatures that improves over the book in certain places. It's also a rare thing among Dahl stories, because the setting is a very normal, everyday one. There are no child-eating giants, lunatic-run chocolate factories, whizzpopping or the Queen of England anywhere in sight.
For those of you who don't know, the eponymous hero is a nine year old boy who lives an idyllic rural life in the mid-1950's, and who has a rather unusual and amazing father.
They run foul of a new, nouveaux-riche landlord who is trying to buy up all the local land for a nefarious scheme and is frustrated because their small plot lies smack in the middle of all his plans.
How father and son team up to foil the "Dirty Dog" (to use Dahl's own term) and foil his plan, is a charming, sometimes horrible and always hilarious story that will have you simultaneously laughing and crying (and quite often crying with laughter).
By English standards the cast is star studded, with Jeremy Irons bringing as much class and skill to this role as he does to any other; Robbie Coltrane (best known as Hagrid in the Harry Potter films) oozes comedic villainy like a twenty five stone Dick Dastardly, as the evil landlord, Victor Hazell; Cyril Cusack (the real-life father-in-law and grandfather of the two main heroes) playing a rather nice, if utterly daffy village doctor; Jimmy Nail as a rather brutish gamekeeper; Lionel Jeffries as a decent sort of headmaster with a penchant for gin (not as awful as it sounds, trust me) and Ronald Pickup, as the second, slightly minor Dirty Dog, Danny's form teacher Captain Lancaster (based on a real teacher of the same name that Roald Dahl knew when he was nine).
The film significantly develops a sub-plot of the book, which is Danny's time at school. Lancaster is a rather severe, ex-military chap with a track record of handing out rather draconian punishments to the children in his "care".
In the book, the last we see of him is when he rather viciously canes Danny and his best friend for a minor misdemeanour. The film however, makes a a rather nice job of tying that loose end up, with Danny dealing the evil teacher a knock-out blow just as well as he does to Victor Hazell in the final scene.
I should probably close by saying a few words about Sam Irons, who delivers totally as Danny in what I think was his only ever film role, despite sounding a bit like a pre-broken voiced Sean Connery. (We should probably be grateful he didn't have to say the word "sit" during the film.)
He specialises in dread-leaden facial expressions, which come especially in handy during his scenes in the school. The looks on his face following Ronald Pickup's lines, "Smith, here" and "Smith, I haven't finished yet", will have all the girls in the audience going "awwwwwwwwwwww", trust me. It certainly seemed to work for all the girls in the class anyway. (If he ever reads this review, twenty years on from when he did it, he's going to be cringing like hell, reading that. * snigger * )
One can only imagine why he didn't follow his father and grandfather into the Business, instead of pursuing a career in photography, as I don't imagine he'd have ever had a problem getting work.
So in closing (for real this time), this is a film for all the family where the kids will love the feeling of adventure and the parents and grandparents will love the nostalgia of a Britain gone into the past.
Every generation of the family will love this, quite possibly more than the book (a rare thing, in my opinion). There is no excuse not to get this film and experience a very real and utterly true, happy ending. If I could give it six stars out of five, I would.