Plague Dogs doesn’t sound like an arresting premise for a film. Two dogs escape from an animal testing plant and have to learn how to live wild around nearby Coniston. But their naivety at how to be wild animals means they accidentally kill sheep and eventually humans, and men soon come after them.
It’s not a rock-solid premise, but it is delivered with such thoroughly thought-out panache that the often touching relationship between the dogs is engrossing. This is the follow-up to bunnyfest Watership Down for director Martin Rosen, and the same keen eye for animal behaviour is at work here. Most importantly, the rather lame message about testing on animals that you would expect to deaden the film is mercifully subservient to keeping focus on the survival tale in the hills.
It doesn’t quite start off so well, starting out in the laboratory before making a break for it. Until then it does seem at risk of drifting into a kid’s morality tale. It only gets interesting when life on the hills stops being cutesy and things start going wrong in rather epic fashion.
His work is ably brought to life by the voice of the dogs, a rather high-powered pairing of James Hurt and Christopher Benjamin; getting them to really commit to the film is the only way that a serious film about the friendship between a terrier and a Labrador is really going to work. The one weak link is James Bolam, playing a Geordie fox – why exactly the fox is Geordie is never explained – and it doesn’t stop grating through the whole film, even if it does provide an essential third character to rest the film on. It also provides an essential benchmark against which to watch the two dogs gradually fall apart, which again, is the crux of the film.
While the animation is fairly low quality, there are still shots that make you sit up and pay attention. A man lighting a cigarette, filling the screen like a painting; blood dripping down rocks into the river; a metal fence dripping in the rain. The eye to detail extends beyond just eye-catching visuals. I am an unhealthily large dog fan – I’m not kidding, I have the office number for Dogs Today magazine in my phone – and I can vouch the dog movement and behaviour is observed to the finest detail.
Beyond dogs, too, the parliamentary debate about the animal laboratory has also proven to be uncannily well put together from our view in a post-Pirbright world. One dog’s descent into mental illness, too, could easily have become a one-note affair without Rosen’s keen eye.
It might not be Watership Down, but this is an excellent exercise in paying attention to detail.