Writer: Pete Milligan
Producer: Michael Cowan, Harley Cokeliss, Jason Piette
Cast: Tom Wilkinson, Geraldine James, Matthew Beard, Charlotte Wakefield, Anna Massey
Year of release: 2002
Reviewed from: UK TV screening
Whatever happened to the Children’s Film Foundation? Their films were in cinemas every Saturday morning, on TV every summer holiday, and on Screen Test every week. Well, they still exist (as the Children’s Film and Television Foundation) and here’s one of their more recent offerings, co-produced with the Yorkshire Media Production Agency and Brighton’s Spice Factory (the company that brought us the delirious Killer Tongue, to which this film bears no similarity whatsoever).
Matthew Beard (Soldier Soldier, Big Meg Little Meg) plays 12-year Tom whose life is far from great: asthmatic, single child, no friends, parents separated and on the brink of a divorce. Following a strange dog, he finds the semi-demolished remains of an old farmhouse up on the Yorkshire moors, and somehow falls through a wall and back in time to 1941.
The working farm is run by Sam Wheeler (Tom Wilkinson: The Full Monty) with his daughter Alison (Julie Cox: Dune mini-series, Death Machine, Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life) and his new lady friend Susan (Geraldine James: Band of Gold). Sam has ‘adopted’ ten-year-old May (newcomer Charlotte Wakefield) who was found in the rubble of a bombed terrace by Alison, several days after an air-raid. A distracted, almost semi-feral child (she won’t come in the house, sleeping with the dog Tess in a kennel), May spent a short while in an institution and may have to go back there. but a blossoming friendship with Tom brings her out of her shell.
Eventually, Tom finds a way back to his own time, where he not only must explain his disappearance to his distraught mother (Angeline Ball: The Commitments) but also discovers some terrifying information about what became of May and the others.
Adapted from Melvin Burgess’ critically acclaimed novel by 2000AD scribe Pete Milligan, An Angel for May is a wonderfully sweet, beautifully observed family film of the sort that They Don’t Make Them Like Any More. Director Cokeliss (who used to spell his surname Cokliss) made two of the best ever CFF films back in the 1970s: The Battle of Billy’s Pond and Glitterball (a sci-fi cult classic uncannily similar to, but predating, ET). Since then he was worked extensively in films (Dream Demon, Bad Moon Rising etc.) and TV (Hercules, Xena etc.); he previously collaborated with Milligan on the largely unseen Pilgrim.
Shot in eight weeks outside Sheffield, An Angel for May does a terrific job of recreating wartime Yorkshire. The CGI warplanes which fly overhead aren’t quite as believable as those in Saving Private Ryan or Pearl Harbour - but this film was probably made for less than the catering budget of those overblown productions. Presumably the book dwells more on Tom’s feelings and thoughts concerning the strange world in which he finds himself - rationing and gas masks and bombing raids; no TV or computer - but with a limited running time Cokeliss and Milligan concentrate more on the characters and the relationships.
The cast are all excellent. Wakefield is a real discovery, and (at the risk of giving away an obvious plot point) she looks sufficiently like the older version of herself, while Wilkinson (who took the role because his children liked the script) brings to Wheeler not only a warm sensitivity but also a beautifully subtle hint that he may know more about Tom’s magical appearance than he’s letting on. Also in the cast are veteran actresses Anna Massey (Vault of Horror, Peeping Tom, Haunted) and Dora Bryan plus a brief cameo by Goodness Gracious Me’s Nina Wadia.
An Angel for May had a few festival screenings but its UK premiere seemed to be tucked away in the Children’s ITV schedules one morning a few days before Christmas 2002. Hopefully this heart-warming, enjoyable movie will be discovered on video because it certainly deserves more exposure in this world of cheap, cynical, product-led children’s cinema.
MJS rating: A-
Review originally written before November 2004