When Dan Hartley was a lad, growing up in Yorkshire, he struck up a relationship, a friendship, with Al Boughen, a park ranger working for the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Lad: A Yorkshire Story, dedicated to Boughen, who died in 2010, is a tribute from the older Hartley, now a writer and director, to the man who mentored him at a crucial stage of his life.
In Hartley’s film Dan is now called Tom and is played with real charm by Bretten Lord (bringing to mind another Yorkshire lad, David Bradley, in Ken Loach’s 1969 film Kes). Tom is a 13-year-old with a life on a familiar course – hanging with his older brother Nick, tinkering with the car with dad David, but mostly just getting on with the business of growing up in the vast craggy outdoors of the Yorkshire Dales.
Everything changes when, early on, David dies, and with him goes his decent wage working at the local quarry. The bank move in on the house. Foreclosure threatening, Tom decides direct action is needed, “borrows” a tractor with a muck-spreader attached and pancakes the outside of the bank with slurry.
This lands Tom in trouble with the law and as a penance for his misdeed he is given a community service order, winding up on the moors under the gimlet eye of park ranger Al (Alan Gibson), a bluff Yorkshireman of the old school – hear all, see all, say nowt etc.
All that’s a preamble for the film proper – the redemptive tale with Al becoming a flinty surrogate dad to Tom – but the strength of Hartley’s story is that it soft-pedals this side of things, almost treating this relationship and its arc as a given. Cups of coffee are drunk from flasks, dry-stone walls repaired, rural paths rehabilitated, often in companionable silence, in sequences that are close to being montage. Hartley relies on us to know what’s going on.
There’s space for two other side stories. Al has a granddaughter, Lucy (Molly McGlynn), a womanly 16 to Tom’s boyish 13 and with a wild eye. A fledgling romance is dangled as a possibility but that age disparity is surely insurmountable. And there’s Tom’s mum, Sarah (Nancy Clarkson, excellent), who decides that if driving a truck at the quarry is the only way to make money round these parts – as her dead husband did – then she’s going to get herself a heavy goods vehicle licence and get a job, whether it is “woman’s work” or not. Needs must.
There are acting wobbles here and there, especially at the edges, but the centre – Tom, Al, Sarah, Lucy – is solid and dependable, touching without ever becoming mawkish. They’re not big on extravagant displays of emotion in Yorkshire and this film reflects that.
Hartley and his DP David Mackie are keen to get in as many stunning vistas from the Dales as possible. The wide open scenery craggy with limestone escarpments, fields full of sheep contained by drystone walls, hillside roads winding along what were once most likely drovers paths. It’s clearly scenery shaped by a human hand, but the way geology pokes through adds a severity to the lushness.
These picture postcards tend to slow the pace down a bit, and the knock-on from that is that not every element of the story gets enough space to develop – Tom’s relationship with his brother Nick feels central at one point… and then it isn’t.
But the big heartedness of the film is undeniable. This is the labour-of-love movie made in honour of a man who had a big impact on a boy at a crucial moment – who taught him to be a man, essentially. A lovely and touching memorial.
Lad: A Yorkshire Story – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2021