Following a long stretch of British TV work, proletarian director Ken Loach returned to the big screen with this 1979 children’s adventure, adapted from a novel by Leon Garfield and set in 1750 Yorkshire. For a social realist like Loach, the story seems unusually macabre and fantastical: young Bartholomew, apprenticed to a draper, is tending to one of the hanged corpses his boss surreptitiously recovers and sells to the local medical college when suddenly the huge man revives, explaining that he survived the noose by shoving a bent spoon into his windpipe. Together, Bartholomew and Black Jack set off across the countryside, hook up with a traveling medicine show, and entangle themselves with a seemingly autistic girl sent by her father to a “private madhouse” so she won’t disrupt her older sister’s engagement to a nobleman.
In the end, though, Loach’s gray, grimy realism is what makes the film: the muted colors and ratty-looking costumes evoke an age when bathing and laundering were more involved affairs. As the plot thickens, Black Jack turns out to be not so far removed from Loach’s usual working-class concerns: money drives this story of roaming hustlers, one of whom arrives at the father’s house bearing the girl’s shawl and demanding a payoff to keep quiet about her. Bartholomew’s infatuation with the girl is rendered with a matter-of-factness that viewers will recognize from Loach’s more recent films about young people in tough times (Sweet Sixteen, The Angels’ Share). After winning the critics’ award at Cannes and screening at the Chicago film festival, Black Jack disappeared for the most part; revived this week for only two screenings, it’s that rare children’s film that cleaves not between old and young but between rich and poor.