Author: Bouquets & Brickbats

Penguin Bloom

29/03/21

Netflix

The lockdown rolls relentlessly on, and we’re reduced to seeking out those films which, in normal times, we’d steer well clear of. Penguin Bloom is one such feature, sporting as it does a storyline that threatens to be a little too saccharine for comfort. The fact that it turns out to be a true story and – as a series of genuine photographs over the end credits proudly attests – sticks very closely to what actually happened, helps no end. So does director Glendyn Ivin’s ability to stay just the right side of mawkishness throughout. Whenever things threaten to tip over into the land of treacle, Ivin offers us a nasty flashback or a vitriolic outburst, just to make sure we appreciate the very real tragedy of the tale.

Sam Bloom (Naomi Watts) and her husband, Cameron (Andrew Lincoln, making a decent fist of an Australian accent) live a carefree existence in an idyllic home somewhere in Australia, with their three sons. Cameron is a photographer by trade and Sam, when not making her own honey, is a keen surfer. But everything changes irrevocably on a family holiday to Thailand, when oldest son Noah (Griffin Murray-Johnston) discovers a secluded roof garden above their hotel and leads his mother up there to take in the scenery.

However, a dodgy bit of building work quickly puts paid to all the fun and games, as Sam takes a horrific fall from the roof and winds up with a damaged spine, paralysed from the waist down.

Once back home, despite everybody’s best efforts, she fails to come to terms with her situation and, all too understandably, begins to descend into depression. Then Noah discovers a fledgling magpie that has fallen from its nest and persuades his parents to let him bring her into the house. He promptly dubs the bird Penguin (Peng for short) and it isn’t long before the creature has become a vital member of the Bloom family. Sam is at first resistant to Peng’s feathery charms, but as time moves on, she warms to her – and of course, as she works towards helping Peng to learn to fly, so Sam manages to spread her own wings…

See, that does sound horribly sentimental, doesn’t it? And perhaps, if I’m honest, there is a streak of that in here, but what the heck, this actually happened and maybe I need to cut the Blooms some slack. If there is a problem with the movie, it’s one of continuity. Peng looks markedly different in just about every shot, but as the credits eventually reveal, ten individual birds played the title role, so perhaps it isn’t exactly surprising: and, let’s face it, CGI birds never really convince, no matter how much cash you throw at them. And these stunt magpies, if rumour is to be believed, actually work for birdseed. Oh and before I forget, Sam’s mother Jan, is played by Jacki Weaver, who actually does have some authority here (see what I did there?).

Ultimately, Penguin Bloom turns out to be an agreeable way to spend an hour or so and, until cinemas finally reopen their doors, we’re going to have to keep sifting through the bowels of our streaming services in a never-ending quest to find agreeable ways for movie fans to pass their time.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Ammonite

26/03/21

Apple TV

Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country was one of the most powerful film debuts of recent years – a visceral, unflinching exploration of rural life that would have had James Herriot hiding behind the sofa. For his sophomore effort, Lee has changed the era and the mood, taking us to Lyme Regis in the eighteen hundreds, where fossil hunter Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) plies her trade, selling the smaller pieces she finds on her daily visits to the seashore to holidaymakers. The larger pieces are sold to her male colleagues, who then blatantly take the credit for discovering them. Mary is all too aware of this and, as a result, she’s become a prickly and insular character, a quality that comes across as cantankerous to strangers.

Mary is approached by celebrated palaeontologist Roderick Murchison (James McCardle), who wants to learn from her. He brings with him his young wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), who is mourning a recent miscarriage and is quite unable to pull herself out of her melancholy. When Murchison is obliged to move on, he leaves Charlotte with Mary for a few weeks, hoping that working alongside the older woman will help her to recover. Mary is at first horrified at the idea – she values her privacy. But Murchison is wealthy and willing to pay for his wife’s internship – and Mary needs the money.

When Charlotte falls ill with a fever, Mary is obliged to nurse her – and, as the days unfold, the two women manage to breach the wall that has kept them apart – and start to realise they are falling in love…

Mary Anning was, of course, a real person, and very little is known about the reality of her personal life. Lee (who also wrote the screenplay) has been heavily criticised for portraying her as a lesbian, accused of taking liberties with the ‘truth’ about her – though I’m willing to bet that, if the film had featured a fictional heterosexual relationship, nobody would have turned a hair. But, having read up on her, it’s impressive to note how much of the story sticks closely to what we do know about the real Mary Anning. What’s most important here is that, because of her gender, she was discriminated against on a daily basis – even though it is now widely accepted that she was one of the most knowledgable people in her field. Like so many Victorian women, she was a victim of the patriarchy, robbed of the credit for so much of what she achieved.

Winslet is simply terrific in the central role, conveying Anning’s awkwardness and inner turmoil in the stolid set of her shoulders, the furtive glances that seem constantly to be seeking escape. She is a misfit, struggling to survive in a world she’s not cut out for. Ronan too, is completely believable as a young woman searching for consolation after an overwhelming loss – and finding it in an unexpected love affair. Shot in what looks like genuinely horrible weather conditions, Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography captures the bleak, rugged beauty of Dorset and this is echoed by a sumptuous score courtesy of Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran. If that’s not enough to entice you, there’s also a lovely cameo performance from Fiona Shaw as Mary’s old flame, Elizabeth.

Ammonite may not have the immediate impact of God’s Own Country, but it’s an exquisitely handled film with an absorbing tale to tell. Lee’s central premise seems to be about the trophies we collect in life, from fossilised remains in glass cases to the lives of those who follow us through the twists and turns of history. It’s well worth your attention.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Moxie

26/03/21

Netflix

Let’s not waste time getting to the point. Here it is: I love Moxie.

Amy Poehler’s second directorial effort tells the tale of Vivian (Hadley Robinson), a sixteen-year-old high school student, who rarely raises her head above the parapet. She’s painstakingly ordinary: quiet but not distressingly so; bright but not a star student; she has friends but isn’t ‘popular.’ When it comes to filling in her university application, her personal statement proves a stumbling block. Because – like countless others – Vivian hasn’t got a ‘thing’: she isn’t on the soccer team, she’s not a cheerleader; she doesn’t act, dance or play chess; she hasn’t got a passion for astronomy or baking; she doesn’t have any burning ambition or sense of what she wants to do. She’s just a kid, muddling through, worried that she’s not good enough.

Although we’re never told exactly where Rockport High School is, there’s a definite sense of small-town claustrophobia. The students have all known each other since kindergarten, and their roles are long-established. Of course, there are some surprises, such as Seth the Shrimp (Nico Hiraga) suddenly appearing a lot less shrimpish after a summer growth spurt, but there’s a general acceptance of how things are. It’s how they’ve always been, right?

But then newcomer Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña) shows up, and views her classmates with fresh eyes. She can see that Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger) isn’t just annoying; he’s an entitled bully. When she calls him out, she’s urged to let it go: Principal Shelly (Marcia Gay Harden) tells her to grow a thicker skin, and Vivian offers her advice on how to fly under his radar. But Lucy isn’t prepared to indulge Mitchell. She stands up to him, even though it makes her a target.

Vivian is inspired.

And so Moxie is born: an anonymous fanzine; a call to arms. Vivian starts small, urging girls to decorate their hands with hearts and stars in a gesture of solidarity, but the movement soon snowballs, threatening the core of the establishment.

As I said, I love Moxie. Although it’s billed as a teen comedy, I think it’s more of a drama, albeit with some funny bits. I’ve seen it unfavourably compared to Booksmart or Eighth Grade, but these comparisons seem to me to miss the point. I love those films too, but they’re primarily coming-of-age stories. As is Moxie, but that’s not it’s main function. Instead, it’s a clear answer to the question, ‘But what can I do?’

Okay, so it’s not subtle. What we have here is a stark depiction of what toxic masculinity is: the dreadful impact it has, how it’s enabled, and how it might be challenged. If I had a teenage daughter, I’d want her to watch this. In these polarising times, it’s good to see something that focuses on connections – on what unites us rather than divides us. So yes, there’s a visible effort to tick all the boxes here – it’s done in plain sight. Vivian learns from her mum, Lisa (Poehler)’s mistakes. ‘We weren’t intersectional enough,’ Lisa says of her own activist past. The film acknowledges that white, middle-class Vivian’s isn’t the only voice that should be heard; everyone’s experience is different. Her best friend, Claudia (Lauren Tsai) is exasperated as she tells Vivian why an immigrant might find it harder to draw attention to herself, for example. We hear from black girls, Asian girls, ‘popular’ girls, quiet girls, sporty girls, disabled girls, clever girls, straight girls, queer girls, non-binaries and ally boys. Because representation and inclusion matter if we’re to forge change and build a fairer, better society.

The Mitchells of this world (the Trumps, the Johnsons) believe in their right to win – and they often do. The odds are stacked in their favour. But we can change that, one Sharpie heart at a time.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Judas and the Black Messiah

25/03/21

Apple TV

The ‘Judas’ in this story is Bill O’Neil (LaKeith Stanfield), a petty car thief who habitually pretends to be an FBI officer in order to ply his trade. Arrested by the police, he’s approached by genuine FBI Agent, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), who points out that O’Neil is now facing a lengthy stretch in prison – six months for stealing a car and five to six years for impersonating an officer.

Or, he might prefer to do the Feds a favour and become their snitch, posing as a member of the burgeoning Black Panther movement. Agree to that and he can walk free.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Bill chooses the latter option and, provided with a decent automobile by his new chums, he’s soon acting as driver to the ‘Messiah’ of the story – Black Panther Chairman, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Hampton is a charismatic and influential mouthpiece, who has his eyes resolutely fixed on the emancipation of Black America. With this in mind, he sets about uniting the various gangs of the city into something he calls The Rainbow Coalition. The white powers-that-be are getting decidedly nervous as the Panthers’ power steadily grows and, of course, there will be consequences…

Shaka King’s slickly directed film is set in a grimy, neon-lit vision of Chicago in the 1960s, an urban powder keg perpetually battered by rain; the city almost becomes another character in the narrative. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that Plemons’ smug and smirking Roy Mitchell looks uncannily like Donald Trump and that Martin Sheen’s oily turn as J. Edgar Hoover eerily evokes the oleaginous style of Rudy Giuliani – but I’m inclined to think otherwise. At any rate, the screenplay makes no bones about it. These are power-mad Machiavellian types, who will stop at nothing to assert their absolute authority.

Daniel Kaluuya’s career has soared meteorically since starring in Get Out and he certainly makes the most of his role here. Hamptons incendiary sermons make it easy to understand why he holds so much sway over his disciples – and why the white rulers of America are terrified of his influence. Little wonder the performance has generated substantial Oscar buzz. Stanfield too is excellent in what is arguably the more difficult role, clearly showing in every frame how conflicted his character is, how degraded by participation in Mitchell’s schemes. As well as providing a thrilling narrative, Judas and the Black Messiah is also extremely informative, filling in many of the gaps in my knowledge of the Black Panther movement. When I was a youngster, its members were always painted as evil troublemakers. In retrospect, it’s easy to see that right was on their side.

The list of injustices meted out to Black Panther members is long and shameful – a callous list of beatings, wrongful imprisonments and murders, mostly inflicted on people whose main ambition was to be free. It’s sometimes hard to believe that the incidents portrayed here happened in my own lifetime – and it’s also sobering to reflect that so little has changed since then.

And, lest I try to console myself by saying, ‘well, it was another time,’ the film’s poignant coda reveals exactly what happened to O’Neil, decades after the turbulent events portrayed here.

Shame is clearly something that lasts a lifetime.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Cherry

16/03/21

Apple TV

The Russo Brothers – Anthony and Joe – are among the most successful filmmakers in history. Avengers: Endgame was, until recently, the most watched film ever (it was only a judicious re-release of Avatar that put that particular trophy back into James Cameron’s hands and that may be a temporary arrangement). It was always interesting to speculate about where the Russos would go next.

On the face of it, this Apple Original film seems a surprising move for them. Adapted from Nico Walker’s semi-autobiographical novel, it mostly concentrates on the life on just one man. Even though he’s played by Spider-Man’s Tom Holland, he’s a pretty ordinary Joe, not given to wandering about in brightly coloured spandex or indulging in extended punch-ups with supervillains. This is, ostensibly, an intimate story – and yet, the Russo’s bombastic style somehow gives it an epic scope, an almost operatic quality, which is enhanced by Henry Jackman’s stirring score.

When we first meet Cherry, he’s in the process of robbing a bank (not his first time) and is chatting amiably to the audience as he goes about it, a daring conceit that really pays off. He’s also about to make a decision that will change his life irrevocably.

It’s at this point that the film whisks us way back to his fresh-faced teenage years, where, in the first of a series of separate episodes, he encounters Emily (Ciara Bravo), the young woman who will become his significant other. A romance duly ensues but, after Emily announces she wants to move to Montreal, Cherry rashly enlists in the army, realising too late that his partner has changed her mind. and he cannot change his. Soon afterwards, he’s plunged headlong into military training and, subsequently, armed combat. The film’s initial brash, cheerful tone veers into darker waters and keeps on going, full speed ahead.

Once out of the armed forces, and suffering from undiagnosed PTSD, Cherry seeks solace in drugs. At first he’s merely overindulging in Xanax and OxyContin, but then he and Emily start the long descent into hardline heroin addiction, in a series of no-holds-barred sequences that make Trainspotting look like a nice day at the funfair. Yes, this is unremittingly bleak subject matter but the story never relaxes its stranglehold on my attention. I find myself compelled as much as I’m appalled and, occasionally, I’m dazzled by unexpected bursts of brilliance.

The director’s final tour de force is the unfolding of fourteen years of narrative in one mesmerising tracking shot, accompanied by Puccini’s Vissi D’Arte. It’s an audacious move and really shouldn’t work, but somehow it’s pulled off with a flourish. Hats off to Tom Holland, who manages to give his all to a role that sees him age from boy to man with absolute conviction.

This really won’t be for everyone – the film never hesitates to show the depths that can be plumbed when drug addiction holds sway. Others have accused the Russo’s of employing style over content, but I disagree. Cherry’s story must be an all too familiar one for so many young soldiers, put through the mincer of warfare and then left to make their own way back into everyday existence. With its epic feel, Cherry makes that story both heroic and tragic in equal measure.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Adam

15/03/21

BBC iPlayer

Trans men must be one of the most under-represented groups in the UK. I read a lot of news; I watch a lot of films and, when there are no pandemic restrictions, I am an avid theatre goer. But, despite the (anecdotal) fact that I know more trans men than I do women, I very rarely see them referred to; their stories largely seem to go untold.

Adam, then, is important not just because of what it says, but because it exists at all – and on a mainstream platform too. The BBC is under fire at the moment, but we shouldn’t forget what it offers us. If commercial viability is the only factor by which content is judged, marginalised people remain invisible to the masses, their experiences rendered forever ‘fringe.’

Indeed, Adam premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017, a National Theatre of Scotland production at the Traverse Theatre, where it was highly acclaimed. This new version, written by Frances Poet and directed by Cora Bissett and Louise Lockwood, again stars Adam Kashmiry as himself, and chronicles his experiences as an Egyptian trans man, alone and frightened in a Glasgow flat, awaiting the results of his asylum application. Adam can’t return to Egypt: revealing his true identity there could result in his death. But he can’t use his gender identity to claim asylum in the UK until he transitions, and he can’t transition until he is granted asylum. Trapped in this double bind, no wonder Adam struggles to cope…

This hour-long film is beautifully constructed. It does always feel more like a play than a movie, but that’s not to its detriment. Yasmin Al-Khudhairi appears as Adam’s female-looking outer self, and offers us an occasional and understated glimpse into how others perceive him. The rest of the supporting cast is strong too, especially Neshla Caplan as a sour-faced immigration officer. But this is Adam Kashmiry’s story, and it is his film too: his performance is compelling, haunting – and heartwarming. Because, although this story is one of unimaginable hardship and pain, it’s also one of triumph over adversity. Here he is: a free man, telling his own tale.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Kyloe at Home

15/03/21

http://www.kyloerestaurant.com

We’re in the middle of a pandemic and we’re both longing for a proper Sunday dinner – you know the kind of thing: a succulent roast joint, crispy potatoes, lashings of gravy. Of course, not so very long ago, such meals could be found at the drop of a hat in any number of restaurants and bars around our home city. Kyloe was always first choice for the old Sunday dinner, though. There’s much to be said for that wonderful feeling of anticipation, as you watch a huge joint being carved right in front of you before being dispensed onto dining plates…

Ah well, until those days can be properly recaptured, Kyloe has set up an ‘at home’ dining experience – which is why on the first available Sunday, we find ourselves wandering over to McLaren’s on the Corner in Bruntsfield (it’s part of the same group, Signature Pubs), where we collect a surprisingly huge cardboard box containing everything we need to create the kind of repast we’ve been dreaming of.

The first thing to say is that Kyloe have thought this through very carefully. The ‘dine at home’ experiences we’ve tried thus far have varied in how simple they are to put together. This one is reassuringly easy. We switch on the oven at 180 degrees and, at clearly designated intervals, we add another container to those already there, leaving ourselves free to indulge in a couple of aperitifs. We’ve ordered a dinner for two and, working on the B & B belief that a side of mac’ n’ cheese goes with just about anything, we’ve added that for a fiver extra.

Once arranged on a plate, the dinner is both generous in proportion and everything you’d expect from this kind of meal. The roast rib of beef is sumptuous, the potatoes crispy, the cabbage and bacon mouthwatering. There’s a container of horseradish sauce to be served hot (not usually a favourite of ours but this one rocks) and naturally there’s a pair of large, crispy Yorkshire puddings, which, when filled with the other veg and ladled with a rich, red wine gravy are just what we were hoping for.

Puddings, I hear you ask? Well, yes, there are some perfectly serviceable sweets – a vanilla cheesecake with raspberry jus and a sticky toffee pudding with a thick gooey sauce. Only the latter of these is a bit disappointing (a portion of custard might have been a welcome addition) but if I’m honest, this is really all about the main course and Kyloe have done an excellent job of providing a spectacular Sunday dinner at home.

Not that I wouldn’t prefer to dine in their excellent restaurant, but fingers crossed on that score.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Trial by Fire

08/03/21

Netflix

Trial by Fire belongs in what’s fast becoming a familiar category in cinema – a based-on-a-true-story account of a person’s lamentable dealings with the American judicial system. Inspired by David Grann’s article in the New Yorker in 2009, Edward Zwick’s movie adaptation had its premiere in May 2018 and thereafter got somewhat lost in the shuffle. Now it’s getting a second chance on Netflix, and it’ thoroughly deserves to be seen, even if the story is unremittingly bleak and feels uncomfortably similar to recent releases like Just Mercy and Clemency. The overriding message, however, is crystal clear: capital punishment is a bad idea, especially in a system where the poor and under-privileged have the odds so heavily stacked against them.

Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’ Connell) is a mouthy young man with a predilection for heavy metal and infidelity. He’s maintaining a stormy relationship with his wife, Stacy (Emily Meade), and struggling to care for his three young kids. He’s not particularly likeable, is constantly quarrelling with Stacy (generally over his affairs with other women), and has a history of violence. But everyone who knows him agrees on one thing: he loves his kids. When a devastating house fire takes their lives and he manages to survive the conflagration, the investigating officers have no doubt in their minds that he set the fire deliberately – and, in the absence of any proof, they’re perfectly happy to fabricate some.

So Cameron winds up on Death Row, sitting in a cell and waiting for his turn for the lethal injection…

Years drift by. Cameron mellows a little, he learns how to maintain friendships with fellow prisoners and acquires an education. A chance meeting between playwright Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern) and a prison reformer affords him the first real visitor he’s had in years. Elizabeth is surprised to find him a compelling and likeable character, so she decides to visit him on a regular basis. As the two of them grow closer, she is encouraged to start looking into the flimsy case that sent him to prison in the first place. It doesn’t take her long to discover some shocking irregularities in the prosecution’s account of what went on.

But she is to discover that finding proof of a man’s innocence – and getting the powers-that-be to reopen his case – are two very different things.

In fiction, of course, this story would be depicted as a desperate race against time, with a phone call offering a pardon coming through at the last possible moment, but Geoffrey S. Fletcher’s screenplay sticks doggedly to the facts of the case. Consequently, the final stretches of this film are an angry howl of protest, a cogent plea for sanity to prevail. Sadly, it’s unlikely to change anything, but you’ll be hard-put to sit through this without feeling a mounting sense of resentment simmering within you. Both O’ Connell and Dern offer compelling performances, and Chris Coy does excellent work in the role of a prison guard, who starts off as an arrogant bully but is gradually redeemed.

But, like I said – this is grim stuff, not for the faint-hearted. On this evidence, can the USA really continue to claim that it has anything resembling a functioning system of justice?

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Capone

03/03/21

Netflix

Al Capone is perhaps the best known gangster in American history. He’s been the subject of many films and portrayed by a whole host of celebrated actors; perhaps most famously by Paul Muni in Scarface and by Robert De Niro in The Untouchables. But he’s never been depicted as he is in Josh Trank’s downbeat film.

Capone is set in the dog days, towards the end of the gangster’s life. ‘Fonse’ has recently been released from prison and is suffering horribly from the neuro syphilis that has plagued him since his teens. Locked up in a palatial mansion somewhere in Florida, with devoted wife Mae (Linda Cardellini) at his side, and with regular visits from Doctor Karlock (Kyle MacLachlan), he regularly falls prey to vivid hallucinations that take him back to revisit experiences from his bloody hey day – from visits to booze-fuelled jazz clubs to crawling across heaps of bloodied bodies after a massacre he’s orchestrated.

Fonse no longer knows what is real and what is illusion and, unfortunately, this also extends to viewers of the film. While it might sound like a promising conceit on paper, it’s actually infuriating, particularly when the screenplay (also by Trank) refuses to stick to any kind of internal logic. I’m fine when I’m seeing odd happenings from Capone’s point of view, but what about when they are apparently witnessed by some of the other characters in the story? Is Capone’s old pal Johnny (Matt Dillon) actually still alive or just a vivid memory from the past? And who is the mysterious kid who keeps phoning Fonse from Cleveland? While I don’t insist that every loose end needs to be tied up, too much here is simply left hanging.

Hardy is generally a gifted performer but he’s saddled here with a thankless central role that offers him little chance to shine. Swaddled in some pretty unconvincing makeup, with a cigar (or a carrot) clenched relentlessly between his teeth, his dialogue is rarely more than a series of grunts and incoherent curses. He’s actually more eloquent when he’s noisily filling one of the oversized nappies he’s forced to wear, after suffering a few malodorous accidents in bed. Also… his constantly stoned expression makes him look a dead ringer for a grumpier version of Bernard Bresslaw from the ‘Carry On’ films.

The film’s one hour and forty-seven minutes’ duration consequently unfolds at a funereal pace, with very little in the way of progression. I feel rather like I am stuck in a traffic jam, trying to figure out what little I can see through the windscreen, and constantly wondering when I might be moving onwards again. I stick with it to the bitter end, but really have to force myself.

There’s probably a fascinating film to be made about the end of Capone’s life but, sadly, this isn’t it. Josh Trank probably had a coherent vision for his film; somehow it’s been lost in the mix.

2.5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Secret Garden

28/02/21

Amazon Prime Video

It’s a hundred and ten years since Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden was first published, but its appeal remains undiminished. I remember fondly the copy I had, part of a collection called ‘Children’s Classics for Girls’ (my brother had ‘Children’s Classics for Boys,’ but we both read all of them, of course, because gender boundaries are stupid, and no one knows that better than kids). I remember my grandad (who worked for MGM) enthusing about the 1949 film version too, because it was mostly shot in black and white, but changed to glorious technicolour in the titular garden. I didn’t actually see it until I was grown up, but I carried that image in my head for years.

Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx) is ten years old, and living in India. Her family is rich and British, but their enormous wealth and privilege can’t save them. This latest movie adaptation changes the context, so that it’s 1947, and we see the turmoil outside the Lennox mansion, caused by Partition. In the novel, Mary’s parents die of cholera. Here, it seems, they are victims of understandably violent protest. One by one, the servants leave, and Mary is left alone: orphaned, adrift.

In the novel, Mary is spoiled: a demanding, contrary madam, who needs to be brought down a peg or two. Here, director Marc Munden offers us a more sympathetic perspective: how can a child be held accountable for her bad manners? She has been parented in a distant, remote way; raised to expect others to obey her commands. What this Mary needs is love and attention – but that’s in short supply. Found, eventually, by British soldiers, Mary is shipped off to a cold, grey England she has never seen, to live with an uncle she doesn’t know. And she never gets to know him, really, because Archibald Craven (Colin Firth) is every bit as unreachable as her own parents were, willing to do his duty and provide for his niece, but completely uninterested in actually seeing her. The ancestral home, Misselthwaite Manor, is enormous, so it’s easy for them to live separate lives.

As in India, Mary spends most of her time in the company of servants. Here in Yorkshire, this means the formidable Mrs Medlock (Julie Walters) and the down-to-earth Martha (Isis Davis). While befriending Mrs Medlock is out of the question, Martha proves more amiable, and her brother Dickon (Amir Wilson), whom Mary meets while exploring the estate, soon becomes Mary’s playmate. Together, they roam the vast grounds, take care of a lame dog and, one day, discover a way into a walled garden, which has been locked ever since Archibald’s wife – Mary’s aunt – died, many years ago. This secret, magical place becomes their sanctuary. The idea of transformation is integral to the book, so it’s a little odd that Jack Thorne’s script seems almost to toss this idea aside. Whereas Hodgson Burnett has the children working hard every day to restore the garden to its former glory, here they just play in it. This undermines the central tenet of the story: that gardens (and children) need tending if they’re to grow well.

Take cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst), who is bedridden, and supposedly out of bounds. He’s another neglected child, trapped by his father’s fears. Archibald thinks Colin has inherited his hunch back, and keeps his son ‘safe’ by cutting him off from the world. Mary hears him crying in the night and decides that what he really needs is to play outside. Like Clara in Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, it turns out that his disability can be ‘cured’ by a bit of fresh air and a positive attitude. (I don’t know if this is as deeply offensive as it seems on the face of things or if it’s a true reflection of poor medical practice at the turn of the last century. Even if the latter is true, does this still apply in 1947?) Still, it’s a transformative move: like the garden, both Colin and Mary become stronger, happier people once they’re shown a bit of love.

This is a good-looking film, and the children all perform well. I like the fact that Mary’s story is contextualised, both by the opening scenes in India and by the old equipment lying around the Manor, a reminder of its recently being requisitioned as a war hospital. But both Walters and Firth are criminally under-used (why cast such great actors if you’re not going to give them anything to do?) and it’s a shame that the garden itself never seems magical; in fact, it’s almost indistinguishable from the rest of the estate, and it’s not clear why this place in particular matters so much to the children. From black and white to technicolour might seem hack nowadays, but I think this movie needs an equivalent trick.

3.6 stars

Susan Singfield