Update: You can also read this review in The Saint, St Andrews’ independent student newspaper, at http://www.thesaint-online.com/2014/12/quintessentially-british-paddington-reviewed/
Paddington: a word steeped in as much British heritage as a rich tea submerged in a mug of Earl Grey. It conjures images of tube stations, London Streets, and of course the eponymous Peruvian bear. This year’s film adaptation of Michael Bond’s beloved books sticks, in typical stoic fashion, to this initial Anglophilic impression. Its humour is unequivocally British, a blend of surrealism, slapstick and self-deprecation which manages to endear the little brown bear to another generation; a generation this incarnation recognises as infinitely more cosmopolitan than any previous.
The story, well known to many, elucidates the adventures of Paddington Bear (Ben Wishaw) in London, where he finds, after a tumultuous beginning, a home in the form of the Brown Family. The surrealist element to the film comes as no surprise once the writer/director is revealed as Paul King, whose past work includes the irrepressibly strange TV series The Mighty Boosh. The film has an understandably absurd sensibility therefore, its outlandish elements made more so by their inclusion next to the mundanely everyday: King’s London is a coexisting world of ubiquitous pigeons and murderous taxidermists, of bookish risk assessors and bathroom tsunamis, and, most centrally, of a nuclear family and a talking bear.
Paddington’s inseparability from London, coupled with the narrative’s seamless acceptance of this most unusual immigrant, provides the film with an unprecedented political undercurrent. It’s a beautiful updating of an old story, made relevant by its wider message, one which whole-heartedly celebrates multi-cultural variation and assimilation while also managing to be quintessentially British. For me, King strikes a tone not dissimilar to Danny Boyle’s triumphant Olympic Opening Ceremony, no mean feat, in his shameless celebration of British quirk tempered with a knowing, absurdist self-ridicule. Matt Lucas’ cabbie pokes a jibe at extortionate drivers; Paddington interprets literally the officious rules of the Tube Station in hilarious fashion; the Geographer’s Guild flashbacks parody the well-spoken, outdated colonials to surprisingly acerbic effect. Paddington recognises London and, more widely Britain’s inadequacies while simultaneously celebrating its rich cultural heritage – in the magnificent backdrops of London architecture, in the enduring intrigue of institutions like the Natural History Museum, in the distinctly English wit and pompous pretence of Bonneville’s bumbling Mr. Brown.
An additional delight comes in the form of King’s script, which is full of literary prowess. It features a proliferation of puns utilising British idiom (rain alone provides a plethora: ‘it’s a brolly-buster’ my personal favourite) and exposes the inadequacies of euphemism (Mr. Brown’s attempts to sugar-coat an Orphanage proposal fall flat) in what is a consistently charming, chortle-inducing manner.
It’s a credit to the film’s script, direction, cinematography and surprisingly original visual style – a flickering Lost and Found sign in the station’s background illuminates ‘Found’ when Mrs. Brown takes pity on Paddington; the Brown’s branch-laden wall-art blossoms and sheds its leaves impossibly to illustrate the passage of time – that the supreme acting talent on display can afford to be unmentioned until my penultimate paragraph. It’s almost as if they don’t need to excel given these other successful elements, and yet excel they do. Hugh Boneville’s Brown is the root of many guffaws, the former Earl of Grantham putting himself through the comedic ringer here in admirable self-parody. Julie Walters’ hard-talking housekeeper is wonderfully homely, as is Sally Hawkins’ more bohemian, slightly-spaced-out mother figure. The relationship between Nicole Kidman’s Millicent and Peter Capaldi’s Mr Curry struck the film’s only bum note for me; a residual reaction, perhaps unfair, in response to the similarity between Millicent and a previous Kidman role, her like-minded Mrs. Coulter in the bitterly disappointing The Golden Compass. It seems more than personal revulsion though; her sequences are not as funny or engaging, an unfortunate side-effect of the wholly successful Brown/Paddington family dynamic. Perhaps another British thespian could have swayed me round better than Kidman’s erroneous American tones.
But this is a minor issue. Paddington overall is a riotously funny, loyal and yet innovative updating of a beloved character’s narrative, making a social point it need not have attempted, and yet pulling it off in a cohesive and convincing style, aided by excellent art and acting direction. It is sure to be a surprise entry on many critic’s films of the year lists, as well as a new favourite for youngsters (and indeed families) worldwide.