BBC America premieres Tom Brown’s Schooldays as a Thanksgiving Day treat. It is based on Thomas Hughes’ immensely popular novel, which was first published in England in 1852 and quicklybecame a classic of boy’s literature. Director Dave Moore’s film version is a very satisfying instant classic of holiday programming for the whole family. Part period drama, part adventure story, part social problem film, Tom Brown’s Schooldays plucks at several heart strings, by turns provocative, touching, frightening, heart-warming, inspiring, and above all, edifying (something movies and novels hardly ever do any more).
The story follows the innocent and untested young Tom Brown (Alex Pettyfer) from his arrival at Rugby School as an eleven-year-old through many harrowing trials, missteps, and changes in outlook, to his gradual transformation into a man. Alex Pettyfer is captivating and convincing in his strong, nuanced, and thoroughly believable portrayal of a boy suddenly on his own and forced to survive in an environment more like a prison or boot camp than an elite private academy. Indeed, the novel was written to shed light on the deplorable conditions in early Victorian boarding schools. Director Moore casts life at 1820s Rugby in unmistakably Dickensian terms – Tom is shown arriving at an ominous-appearing institution, the buildings and interiors in dreary browns, riotous and disheveled boys tearing about. It rather feels like Oliver Twist being delivered into the hands of Fagin.
Arriving at Rugby at the same time as young Tom, the new headmaster Dr. Arnold (Stephen Fry) has come with the reformer’s zeal to make educational reform through Christian charity, mutual respect, and swift justice tempered with kindness. He faces what in current parlance would be described as an utterly dysfunctional school system. Under the old boarding school model, teaching faculty left school grounds at the end of their teaching duties, and the boys looked after themselves. In fact, mob rule took over at sundown. Life in the dorms – distilling and drinking alcohol, gambling, keeping and using firearms, deflowering girls from the village, brutal hazing, and a culture of bullying (frequently resulting in serious injury and even death) may be surprisingly familiar to early twenty-first century audiences. Thomas Hughes’ character was based on an actual headmaster and Stephen Fry’s deeply moving and warmly human portrayal helps convey why Dr. Arnold became the ideal model of the beloved English public schoolmaster (as recently incarnated in Professor Dumbledore, headmaster of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School).
At the heart of the school’s and the boys’ problems is the unbridled sadism of the fifth form student (upperclassman) Flashman (Joseph Beattie), son of Rugby’s wealthiest benefactor, who even the board of directors is afraid to stand up to. Joseph Beattie is maddeningly on-target in his portrayal of this classic school yard bully. Boy’s literature in general, and much Victorian writing, fiction and non-fiction alike, sought to offer moral instruction, and to this day Tom Brown’s Schooldays remains the classic textbook study of bullying. The film sheds bit of metaphorical light on Darwin’s "survival of the fittest." The old-school adults repeatedly parrot the received wisdom that bullying and violence is just boys being boys and proper preparation as future members of Britain’s ruling class.
For the dyed-in-the-wool Anglophile, the boys play rugby and cricket, the English countryside is green and beautiful, and the school is full of recognizable colorful characters. Period detail is carefully, lovingly and beautifully photographed. Class distinctions in speech, dress and manner are faithfully rendered. Tom Brown’s Schooldays was filmed on location at Rugby, featuring the actual well where George Arthur was dunked, the chapel where Tom prayed and the fields where the game of rugby was first played. Many of the extras are played by actual Rugby students. The substantive performances of Pettyfer, Fry, and Beattie are complemented by the rest of the cast, memorably Tom’s allies East (Harry Mitchell) and Tadpole (Dane Carter), and Tom’s young ward George Arthur (Harry Smith). Beautifully shot and tightly edited, the production’s two hours fly by in what seems like mere moments.