Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Storybook Movies: Paddington and Cinderella

The English filmmaker Paul King, who wrote and directed Paddington, seems to have come out of nowhere. (His résumé includes only one previous feature – something called Bunny and the Bull, which never opened in the U.S. – and a handful of obscure TV credits.) And he comes fully formed, with style, sensibility and a level of inventiveness and filmmaking expertise that ought to make other novice directors green with envy – or inspire them to go and do likewise. Paddington, based on the Michael Bond children’s books about a Peruvian bear who’s adopted by a family of Londoners (King and Hamish McColl worked up the screen story), is so accomplished visually, so funny and enchanting, that watching it makes you feel a bit delirious.

Never having read any of the entries in the Paddington series (Bond wrote nearly two dozen, beginning in 1958), I don’t know how closely King and McColl stuck to the first or if they interpolated narrative ideas from any of the subsequent ones. In the movie, Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw, The Hour) is raised in the jungles of Peru by his Uncle Pastuzo (Michael Gambon) and his Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton), under the influence of an English explorer named Montgomery Clyde (Tim Downie) who came to collect ursine specimens for the British Museum of Natural History and befriended them instead, teaching them how to speak English and passing on the traditions of his own culture. The bears are delicious parodies of mid-twentieth-century bourgeois Brits: Aunt Lucy wears specs and purplish-brown beads and Paddington travels to London, when his guardians deem it time for him to set off on his own, with Clyde’s battered orange hat on his head. The plan is for him to track down his uncle and aunt’s explorer friend, so they send him out in a boat loaded down with jars of marmalade, his favorite food, for survival. (Pastuzo cooks it up every summer when the Peruvian oranges are ripe.) The voice Whishaw uses for Paddington is genteel, hushed, and he speaks with Edwardian politesse; he’s like John Hurt as The Elephant Man but without the sadness.

Our hero surfaces at Paddington Station; an aerial shot pictures him lost amid the oblivious commuters who rush past him on the glittering platform. (The marvelous production design and cinematography are by Gary Williamson and Erik Wilson, respectively.) And that’s where the Browns, who become his new family, first catch sight of him. Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville, Downton Abbey’s Lord Grantham) doesn’t want to be encumbered with a young bear, but his wife (Sally Hawkins) and their children, Judy (Madeleine Harris) and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), persuade him to let Paddington stay the night and help him get started on his search for Clyde in the morning. And though at first his confusion about the accoutrements of English domestic life, like the toilet and the bathtub, bring on a certain amount of calamity, and though it takes Mr. Brown considerably longer than his family to realize that Paddington completes their unit and brings a vibrancy and harmony to it that have been missing, inevitably he comes around. When the bear is threatened by the machinations of an obsessive taxidermist named Millicent (played by Nicole Kidman with razor-cut platinum-blonde bangs that make her blue eyes pop), the entire family, led by Mr. Brown, rides to the rescue. (Kidman has never been better and certainly never funnier; she makes Millicent the most memorable children’s-story villainess in the movies since Cruella De Vil.)

Paddington and Hugh Bonneville in Paddington.
One of the best jokes in the movie is a running gag about British understatement: the presence of a talking bear doesn’t elicit surprise from anyone except the scheming Millicent. The cabbie who drives him home with the Browns refers to him as “the young bear” – the way you might say “the young lad” – and points out the sights of London as they go because he assumes that, like any visitor, he’ll want to get an eyeful. There’s an irresistible bit where one of the guards at Buckingham Palace lets Paddington in out of the rain, disregarding protocol, and even feeds him a sandwich (with a Union Jack toothpick stuck in it). The Browns’ housekeeper, Mrs. Bird, is a no-nonsense Scotswoman with a warm maternal side who takes to him immediately. That’s the indispensable Julie Walters; the amazing cast also includes Jim Broadbent as an antiques dealer and Peter Capaldi as the Browns’ ornery neighbor, Mr. Curry, who doesn’t approve of a bear moving in across the street and becomes Millicent’s ally because he’s smitten with her. He’s not a bad sort, though, as it turns out: when he sees “taxidermist” printed on her van he has second thoughts. Every one of these actors is terrific, including Harris and Jude Wright as Judy and her first boy friend, Tony, whom she invites home under protest because her parents embarrass her. Bonneville and Hawkins are wonderful together, especially in a flashback to their young married life, when they were hippies. He drives her to  the hospital on his motorcycle when she goes into labor with Judy; when they emerge he’s become conservative overnight, cut his hair and, with his new-found father’s caution and anxiety, lost his taste for improvisation and experimentation. (Paddington reinvigorates it.) Bonneville even gets to do a bit of sex-farce-style cross-dressing, pretending to be a cleaner to get access to the archive at the Geographers’ Guild, where he and Paddington hope they can run down Clyde’s whereabouts.

King comes up with one great idea after another; the movie is the visual equivalent of the candy store of every child’s dreams. Sometimes you think of Rube Goldberg (in the scene where Paddington takes on the bathroom on his first evening at the Browns’, and in the one at the Geographers’ Guild, where his marmalade baguette sandwich jams the archive system). In Judy’s bedroom, photos of her and Tony on her wall exchange confidences. One image of the Brown household is a dollhouse cross-section, and when the film supplies a back story for Mr. Gruber, the antiques man, who emigrated from the continent as a child, we see him and his welcoming aunt and the train that carried him to his adopted country in miniature. The wallpaper in the Brown house is a flower print, but the blossoms fade when Millicent succeeds in kidnapping Paddington. Perhaps my favorite visual is a scene where the Browns screen documentary footage of explorer Clyde’s Peruvian adventure and Paddington’s imagination takes over: it turns into full color as he strides into it and ends up back in the jungle with his aunt and uncle. There are also some delightful visual jokes, some of them puns that overlap with the ones in the dialogue. A beautiful aerial shot of umbrellas in the rain alludes to both Our Town and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and when Millicent slips into the Brown home through the skylight, the scene parodies one of the set pieces in De Palma’s Mission: Impossible movie.

Paddington is entranced by a calypso band called D Lime who perform in a park nearby; King uses them to punctuate the story and comment on it, the way the Babe movies use the mice. And King threads a motif of birds that swoop down, big-eyed, whenever Paddington hauls out a marmalade sandwich, and no matter how hungry he is, he’s too kindhearted to refuse to give it up to them. At a crucial moment, they reciprocate his generosity; this is a movie in which no detail lacks follow-through. Watch this guy.

Lily James in Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella.

I love Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations and I hope he gets to do more of them. But the entertainments he’s been turning out lately, like last year’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and the new Cinderella, are nothing to sneeze at. In his version of Cinderella, which has a well-turned script by Chris Weitz, the heroine (Lily James) is taught by her dying mother (Hayley Atwell) to hold the virtues of courage and kindness ever before her. So even after the death of her merchant father (Ben Chaplin), when her stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and stepsisters (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger) reduce her to the status of a servant, she manages to live by those precepts, and to keep her imagination alive – another legacy from her mother, who believed proudly in everything. In this retelling of the classic Perrault story, Ella meets the prince (Richard Madden) in the forest, not knowing who he is; he tells her he’s an apprentice in the palace, learning his dad’s trade – a little misleading but certainly not a lie. He falls in love with her when she asks him to let the stag he and his companions are hunting go free. Initially he explains to her, laughing, that they’re engaged in a hunt and that’s the way things are done, but she replies patiently that the way things are done isn’t necessarily the right way. Like all the best fairy tales, this Cinderella is forward-looking, liberal in spirit – it’s about the possibility of change. The King hosts a ball so that his son can choose a bride among the eligible princesses from neighboring kingdoms; it’s the Prince’s idea to invite as well all the young women from his own, regardless of class.

Unless they’re modernized (as Cinderella was in the lovely 1998 film Ever After), the heroines of fairy tales, with their bottomless endurance and sunny dispositions, can come off as bland and papier-mâché. But that’s not a danger when you cast Lily James, whom millions of viewers know and love as Lady Rose in Downton Abbey. (Fans will also recognize Sophie McShera, who plays Daisy on the series.) In the recently concluded season, Rose marries the man she adores but persuading her new father-in-law to accept her is a challenge. Eventually she wins him over by performing a good deed on his behalf, acting instinctually out of compassion; Lord Grantham, her cousin, comments that if you reach out to Rose she’ll respond with a depth of devotion that will overwhelm you. James’s ace as an actress is a glowing sweetness – sweetness that never turns saccharine, never feels forced or superficial. It’s as essential to her as Audrey Hepburn’s pixie charm; it’s a quality that defines her, completes her.

Holliday Grainger, Cate Blanchett and Sophie McShera in Cinderella.
Blanchett brings her icicle-sharp high-comic style to her role, but the Stepmother’s malice in this reading is shaded with sorrow – a feeling of deprivation owing to the premature loss of a beloved first husband and the death of a second (whom she married out for pragmatic reasons) that has plunged her into economic hardship. In a surprising scene late in the movie, she implies to Ella that her cruel treatment of her stems from a desire to crush a spirit so innocent as to insist on seeing the world in a positive light. It’s hard to visualize anybody better in this part than Blancett, and the costume designer Sandy Powell’s  most inspired creations are the ones she gets to wear; one or two of her blouses wouldn’t have been out of place in the 1930s or ‘40s. James and Blanchett head an A-list cast (like Paddington’s). Richard Madden is as warm a prince as he is handsome. Derek Jacobi, his hair frosted with gold, sporting a downy little beard, is the dying king, his regal aura undimmed by illness. McShera and Grainger, garbed in identical outfits, cavort amusingly as the snobbish but dim-witted stepsisters. Helena Bonham Carter imports her dotty sense of humor to the part of the Fairy Godmother, and it’s a pleasure to see Ben Chaplin, Rob Brydon and Nonso Anozie in small roles. On the other hand, Stellan Skarsgård plays the scheming Grand Duke as more or less the same kind of villain he’s played many times before, but because his facial hair is silly and he seems to be bursting out of his vest, we don’t have to take him seriously. (Besides, his subplot, which allies him with the Stepmother, is a red herring the script forgets to develop.)

I wish that the fireworks that announce the opening of the ball didn’t look so much like the ones in the Disney logo (this is, after all, Disney release), and there are one or two other standard touches, but most of the visuals are old-fashioned in the best sense – lush in a way that recalls the big-studio era. (The ladies at the ball, except for Cinderella, wear gowns in the same balloon shape, so the dances have a magical-toy-shop quality.) The great Dante Ferretti designed the production and Haris Zambarloukos shot it. When the Fairy Godmother transforms a pumpkin and the greenhouse that houses it into Cinderella’s coach, her mouse companions into white chargers, two indolent lizards into footmen and a goose into the driver, the script, the direction and the performers seem to have caught the same strain of midsummer madness. (The footmen might have stepped right out of Lewis Carroll.) Branagh and his collaborators prove that you don’t have to channel contemporary middle-school culture to make a first-rate movie of a fairy-tale classic. You just have to be smart and talented.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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