‘Just Henry’ review

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Not, unhappily, a mind-boggling mash-up of Just William and After Henry – although it is a period piece containing plenty of schoolboy antics which features three generations of a family struggling to cope after the death of a son/husband/father – Just Henry is actually an adaptation of a children’s novel by Goodnight Mister Tom author Michelle Magorian which strives to be charming but ends up being simultaneously laborious and lethargic.

Josh Bolt stars as Henry Dodge, a teenage boy struggling with the pangs of adolescence in post-World War II Yorkshire. Plagued by nightmares of his dead father Joseph and troubled by his mother’s remarriage to another man (Life on Mars star Dean Andrews), Henry is losing interest at school (partly encouraged by his grandmother, who stalks the family home like a matriarchal buzzard and shares his antipathy towards her daughter-in-law’s new husband) until a new teacher and – more pertinently – a new female classmate encourage him in his passion for photography and the cinema.

The latter, Grace Ellis (Charlie May-Clark), also tries to broker some peace between Henry and another boy in their class, Paul Jeffries (Perry Millward). This is no easy task, as it was Paul’s deserter father who killed Joe Dodge during the war.

‘Is that what they call a bastard?’ Henry asks at one point. Actually, it isn’t, because neither of the boys’ fathers is actually what they seemed to be. In the best Dickensian tradition, Henry’s dad’s name reveals his true nature like a window into his murky soul: Joe Dodge is Dodgy Joe, and when he turns up, back from the dead like Harry Lime – not very coincidentally, Henry has just been to see The Third Man with Grace and Paul – his son’s already fraught world is turned completely upside down.

Just Henry is indolent, even for a period drama. After a sedate opening, it slows down to a crawl and by the third reel it’s dragging like the broken-legged dog in Flatliners. Not even the explosive climax, in which Dodgy Joe kidnaps his family and Henry is forced to deliver his mum’s baby in a warehouse, can haul it out of its torpor.

‘You’re going to see things,’ she warns him as she goes into labour. ‘Private things … blood and gore …’ To be honest, after the arduousness of the preceding ninety minutes or so, this would be a welcome respite. But this is a family drama and there’s barely a splash of claret – not even when Joe gets a bullet in the guts during a shootout. It’s an ending that strives to be exciting but unfortunately ends up being as anodyne as what has gone before.

It’s a shame, really, because the cast is mostly excellent. John Henshaw is fast becoming the Yorkshire equivalent of Samuel L Jackson for ubiquity (if there’s a drama set within the Ridings, you can bet he’ll be in it) but he rarely disappoints and it’s nice to see him playing someone nice for a change. Barbara Flynn brings a breathy energy to Henry’s forward-thinking teacher Mrs Beaumont; Elaine Cassidy is dignified and vulnerable as his mother Maureen while Sheila Hancock struggles gamely with the limitations of a thoroughly unlikeable character and just about comes out on top as Henry’s grandmother.

Josh Bolt (Nowhere Boy) is excellent in the title role, even if some of the dialogue he shares with the adult characters is preposterously unrealistic.

Everything looks wonderful, of course, with ITV1 conjuring up the past with their customary assurance. However, one might get bored of a David Hockney portrait of Yorkshire after staring at it two hours, no matter how gorgeous it looks. Just Henry is no different.

Aired at 7pm on Sunday 18th December 2011 on ITV1.

> Buy the DVD on Amazon.

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