BLACK BEAUTY *** 1/2. Written and directed by Caroline Thompson, from the novel by Anna Sewell. Photography, Alex Thomson. Editing, Claire Simpson. Production design, John Box. Music, Danny Elfman. Costumes, Jenny Beavan. Cast: Alan Cumming (voice of Black Beauty), Andrew Knott, Sean Bean, Peter Cook, Eleanor Bron, David Thewlis, Jim Carter, Peter Davison. A Warners release. 89 minutes. Rated G.
Good books for young readers are generally more than that. Englishwoman Anna Sewell's 1877 novel "Black Beauty" is about the life and ups and downs of a horse who experiences sundry owners. It has been read by generations of children as well as adults. Its original publishers printed 150 editions before the copyright ran out.
The book kept going strong well into the 20th Century, but I cannot tell how much it is read today by the electronics generation. At the Urbana Free Library I found it only in large print with the card (in Copy 1) showing that it had been checked out once in 1987, twice in 1988 and once in 1991.
Sewell's story came from a good observer who knew much about horses. In 1834, Anna, then 14, twisted both ankles and became a cripple. At age 37, a partial cure allowed her to ride again for a while. Then matters worsened and, at 51, the immobilized woman began writing her only book. Because of illness this took five years. It made her instantly famous, but she died in April 1878. Over the years her novel did much for the understanding and the better treatment of horses, in England and elsewhere.
"Black Beauty" has been filmed several times. The current version is by far the best and much more than a cutesy kid flick. It is the directing debut of Caroline Thompson, the scriptwriter of "Edward Scissorshands," "Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey," "The Secret Garden," "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas," and the co-written "The Addams Family."
Her adaptation of "Black Beauty" is first-rate. The book gets condensed and simplified but does not impart a feeling of condensation or simplification. The changes and the special touches are intelligent and sensitive.
As in the book, the story is told by Black Beauty. We accept this device as well as its anthropomorphism. And more reassuring to young viewers than the book is the guarantee of a happy ending as the film opens with Black Beauty speaking as a contented retiree.
Ms. Thompson picks and modifies with skill and feeling. She has, among others, done away with most of the storiesof horses other than Black Beauty, although she's retained the mare Ginger and the pony Merrylegs. Eliminating a few episodes and condensing others does not hurt the main tale.
For instance, of the stupid mistreatment of animals (cutting off horses' tails, or parts of dogs' ears for the sake of fashion, or the use of blinkers) she has kept only the use of bearing reins that artificially kept the horses' heads up. This is a sufficient example of idiotic cruelty. Or else, a reference to a washed-out bridge is rearranged to become a key, tense autobiographical episode.
The various levels of the novel come through sharply: the affection between horses, among people, or between horses and people, as well as the incompetence, imbecility, incomprehension, indifference or downright inhumanity of those who deal with horses. Clear too is Anna Sewell's sympathy for many of the working people (especially cabbies) and her indignation at their treatment by the higher classes.
In Sewell's day horses were of immense importance. Except for the already widespread railroads, on land the horse was the sole means of transportation and locomotion. The book appeared almost a decade before major experiments of people like Benz or Daimler with the internal combustion engine, not to mention the start of commercial production of automobiles around 1890 in France and their significant spread after 1900 -- and that mostly in developed countries.
"Black Beauty" is involving, suspenseful and absorbing. It has drama, humor, tragedy and color, and it is very Dickensian in plot, look and feel. Its makers include an experienced cinematographer; a quadruple Oscar-winning designer ("Lawrence of Arabia," Doctor Zhivago," "Oliver !," "Nicholas and Alexandra"); the costume designer of Merchant/Ivory films (Oscared for "A Room With A View"); and the Oscar-winning editor of "Platoon."
The cast of horses and ( mostly in small parts) humans, is excellent. The latter include young Andrew Knott ("The Secret Garden") and -- remember how versatile British actors can be -- Sean Bean (the savage Irish terrorist in "Patriot Games") as kindly Farmer Grey, and especially David Thewlis (Best Actor at Cannes 1993 for his maniacal-nihilistic portrait in "Naked") as the even kinder London cabbie Jerry.