Review: The Borrowers / Directed by: Tom Harper / Written by: Ben Vanstone / Starring: Aisling Loftus, Christopher Eccleston, Sharon Horgan, Charles Hiscock, Shaun Dooley, Victoria Wood, Stephen Fry, Robert Sheehan/ Released: December 26th, BBC One
This isn’t the first time Mary Norton’s quaint children’s book has been adapted for the screen. It’s been an early-1990s TV series, a big-screen 1997 version (featuring a pre-Malfoy Tom Felton, fact fans) and most recently a Studio Ghibli animation. But now the BBC are dusting off the rights again for this feature-length version to air on Boxing Day.
In this modernised take on the story, teenager Arrietty Clock and her parents Pod and Homily are the titular little people living under the floor boards of James Millman’s house, a young boy whose life has been torn apart first by the death of his mother, and then by the recession. But James’ Grandmother has tipped off the dissection-happy Professor Mildeye to their presence, and they’re forced to go on the run with sewer-wise Borrower Spiller as their reluctant guide.
The Borrowers has always been a kid’s story, and, as the 7.30pm scheduling suggests, it is still very much child-friendly. But thanks to clever casting it’ll guarantee itself an all-ages appeal. Christopher Eccleston surprisingly pops up as Pod, bringing some grit to the overprotective patriarch, while Pulling fans will be pleased to see Sharon Horgan bringing chemistry with Eccleston in her role as Homily, and Robert Sheehan alone should bring in a hefty fanbase, playing a Spiller who is basically a less-foul-mouthed, more-heroic Nathan. The real coup, though, was in persuading Stephen Fry to take a rare acting job as Professor Mildeye. He and his eccentric South African assistant steal the show and it leaves you wishing Fry would step out from behind the QI desk a little more often.
Despite a rather starry cast (did I forget to mention Victoria Wood?) this film is actually something of a test run for three relatively unknown key players. Writer Ben Vanstone has previously only written for Merlin and some soaps, but here he brings a wit and modernity to the rather staid source material, essentially turning it into a charming coming-of-age story. Director Tom Harper, who cut his teeth on the pretty-damn-awful ITV series Demons before moving onto more respectable fare with This is England ’86 and Misfits, brings a verve and pace to proceedings, coaxing an excellent performance out of child actor Charlie Hiscock as James, punching above his budget with the special effects and overseeing some truly spectacular sets.
The final bright young thing is Aisling Loftus as Arrietty, previously known for such unrelentingly grim dramas Dive and Five Daughters. She brings an eagerness and wonder to Arrietty, as well as a bravery initially born out of naivety but soon becoming the real thing. Rest assured, once The Borrowers airs her name will crop up in any discussion about who will be replacing Karen Gillan in Doctor Who.
The Borrowers is perfect Christmas TV viewing – joyous and exciting with inventive set-pieces, something that taps into your inner child without patronising you. The cast is uniformly brilliant and Vanstone and Harper have announced themselves as sci-fi/fantasy talent to watch. I’d be surprised if we didn’t soon get an announcement that the cast would be returning for another seasonal special in the near-future.