Hugh Bonneville

To Olivia

08/04/21

Now TV

It’s the early 1960s and ambitious author Roald Dahl (Hugh Bonneville) is smarting from the lukewarm reception afforded to his recently published children’s novel, James and the Giant Peach. Undeterred, he’s planning his next opus, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. We know he’s an author because he constantly talks about the work in progress, dropping little references that relate to what’s coming next and using his three children, Olivia, Tessa and Theo, as sounding boards for his new ideas. This is something that, in my experience, real authors never do. Should I ever fall into the habit, please feel free to tell me to shut up.

Dahl lives in darkest Surrey with his wife, acclaimed screen actress, Patricia Neal (Keeley Hawes), who is herself dissatisfied by the fact that her once eventful career seems to be heading nowhere fast, since she’s reached a certain age – though she has been offered a small part in Martin Ritt’s upcoming movie, a little thing called Hud. (Roald thinks the part is beneath her and advises her not to bother).

But their country idyll is shattered when Olivia contracts measles and, with no vaccine available in the 1960s, promptly dies of encephalitis. This film then is about Dahl’s desperate attempts to come to terms with the death of his daughter and his subsequent struggle to maintain both his marriage to Neal and his relationships with his other children. On paper, it promises to be a visceral tearjerker. But somehow, it’s not.

John Hays’ film makes a valiant attempt to cover this difficult subject matter, but seems to shy away from anything too tortuous or distasteful, which means it all feels rather too cosy for its own good. Attempts have been made to ‘plain up’ Hugh Bonneville with a false nose and a balding pate but, even when he’s being unpleasant – something that the real Roald Dahl was allegedly very adept at – he’s still basically Hugh Bonneville, the very definition of a thoroughly nice chap. Hawes is perhaps a better fit for Neal, but isn’t given the kind of catharsis her character requires. Even her brief interplay with Paul Newman (Sam Heughan, who certainly looks the part) seems more concerned with pointing out how capable she is at putting the director and lead actor straight about their own project, which just feels downright odd.

To Olivia is curiously underwhelming. There’s an admittedly lovely turn from Isabella Jonsson as Tessa and there’s also the final performance from Geoffrey Palmer as a deeply unpleasant archbishop of Canterbury, ranting about animals not being allowed into the kingdom of heaven, but even that isn’t enough to make this project fly.

It’s like being assaulted with nicely plumped cushions – you don’t really feel any impact.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Paddington 2

10/11/17

Paddington is a tough act to follow. That first film got everything right – a family entertainment that really did have something for everyone. It was also highly successful, so of course there was always going to be a sequel. The modestly titled Paddington 2 says it all. Not Paddington Episode Two, or Paddington Rides Again. No, this does exactly what it says on the tin –  a second adventure featuring Michael Bond’s celebrated ursine hero.

But, can it hope to be as good as its progenitor? The fact that the film’s release has been delayed for a month while the production company scrambles to disassociate itself from a certain Harvey Weinstein doesn’t augur well but, against all the odds, this second installment of the franchise manages to unfold its delightfully silly story without putting a single paw wrong.

The film opens with a flashback to darkest Peru, where Uncle Pastuzu (Michael Gambon) and Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton) first encounter the orphaned bear cub who will become Paddington – and we discover that Aunt Lucy has a longheld ambition to visit the city of London. After the credits we nip smartly back to the present day, where Paddington is now a valued member of the Brown family, helping Henry (Hugh Bonneville), Mary (Sally Hawkins), Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) and Judy (Madeleine Harris). He’s also fitting in nicely with the community of the street on which he lives – cue plenty of cameos from what seems like scores of celebrated comic actors.

But with Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday approaching, Paddington is looking for a suitable present for his beloved aunt so, when his friend, Mr Gruber, (Jim Broadbent) who runs the local antique shop, shows him a charming (and rather expensive) pop-up book of the city, Paddington resolves to earn enough money to buy it for her. To this end, he tries his hand at window cleaning and barbering, both with suitably hilarious results. Then, by chance, his path crosses with that of has-been actor, Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), who, it transpires, wants the pop-up book for his own nefarious purposes…

Once again, the screenwriters have managed to capture the spirit of Michael Bond’s evergreen tales, presenting us with a storyline that will have people of all ages laughing uproariously – when they’re not clutching for their handkerchieves. Yes, this is undoubtedly manipulative stuff, but it’s done with such style and such sure-footedness, that you cannot help but be swept along. Scenes where the unthinkable happens and Paddington is actually sentenced to a spell in jail will have the hardest heart breaking into tiny pieces – and the little bear’s developing friendship with prison chef Knuckles McGinty (the ever dependable Brendan Gleeson) is a brilliant conceit which occasionally yields comedy gold.

It doesn’t end there. Paddington 2 is endlessly inventive (scenes where the little bear and his aunt cavort amidst a pop-up recreation of the city of London are a particular highlight). Perhaps the biggest surprise here is Hugh Grant (who, weirdly, we think we spotted walking a tiny dog near Rosslyn Chapel a couple of weeks ago). His turn as the self-obsessed Phoenix Buchanan is one of his best performances ever and he very nearly steals the show from the titular bear – still endearingly voiced by Ben Whishaw.

When you witness some of the absolute dross that passes for ‘family entertainment’ these days, it’s reassuring to see something as lovingly crafted as this. The next question? Can they do it a third time? Well, that remains to be seen. Meanwhile, this will do very nicely indeed.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Viceroy’s House

06/03/17

It’s 1947 and Lord Louis Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) is given the dubious honour of being the last British Viceroy of India. With his magisterial wife, Edwina (Gillian Anderson) at his side, he arrives in Delhi with the full knowledge that he has been handed a poisoned chalice. The India that he leaves behind will be subject to the innate animosity between its Hindu and Muslim inhabitants. There is already much talk about the founding of a new country, Pakistan. Meanwhile, Hindi Jeet Kumar (Manish Dayal), working as a servant in the Viceroy’s House, reunites his acquaintance with Aelia (Huma Qureshi) a young Muslim woman he met some years earlier and who has now been promised by her father, Ali (the late Om Puri) to another man, as part of an arranged marriage. But as Jeet and Aelia spend time together, they begin to realise they are falling in love…

The partition of India is a fascinating and shameful slice of recent history and frankly one that deserves a better film than this. ‘Show don’t tell’ is a well known adage in storytelling but sadly, nobody seems to have told the screenwriters of this tale, as repeatedly, characters tell us of far more interesting events happening offscreen. The occasional use of a bit of vintage newsreel isn’t enough to pep things up and inevitably, I found my attention wandering. It’s no good telling me about a massacre on a train. I need to see it!

The performances are, as you might expect, exemplary. Bonneville dashes off the kind of ‘decent fellow’ routine he could do in his sleep, while Anderson portrays a character that is so painfully posh, she can’t even seem to walk without affectation. The film chooses to skip over her real life affair with Nehru (played here by Tanveer Gani) and there’s a suggestion that the Mountbattens stayed on after partition in order to help ease the transition, which is at best fanciful and at worst, a downright lie. Mahatma Ghandi (Neeraj Kabi) totters on for a scene or two and Michael Gambon offers a decent turn as the oleaginous General Hastings, but there’s the distinct feeling that a much more compelling story is happening just a few streets away from the gilded corridors of the titular palace. Most damning of all, the love affair element feels somehow superfluous, grafted on to make this more palatable to a wider audience, but as it stands, this is like history seen through Downtown Abbey coloured glasses – lacking in grit, action and verité.

Not awful, you understand, just a bit so-so.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Paddington

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30/11/14

For what is ostensibly just another children’s movie, Paddington arrives surrounded by controversy. It has a PG certificate (mildly ridiculous when you think of the kind of big budget carnage that generally acquires a 12A) and others have complained that this new cinematic manifestation features a bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) that is decidedly ursine and not at all like Michael Bond’s original teddy bear creation. At the end of the day all this matters little. The film is a real delight, cleverly put together and featuring plenty of content to appeal to the more mature viewer. In fact, it might be true to say that much of it will be wasted on really young viewers and there are a couple of scenes here (mostly those featuring evil taxidermist, Millicent (Nicole Kidman)) that may actually traumatise them.

The film begins with an origins story (something that Bond never bothered with) which shows a family of rare bears in ‘darkest Peru’ that are discovered by British explorer Montgomery Clyde (Tim Downie.) From him they learn to speak English and acquire a liking for marmalade. When he departs, he leaves them with an open invitation to visit him in London. But it takes a tragedy (an earthquake) to galvanise young Paddington into heading for England.  At Paddington station, he meets the Brown Family – Hugh Bonneville as an uptight insurance broker and Sally Hawkins as a much more free-thinking book illustrator. The Browns and their two children take Paddington in as a guest and much hilarity ensues…

And it does ensue, most convincingly. In fact, the script by Paul King, never puts a paw wrong, milking the slapstick sequences for enough laughs to keep a young audience entertained, whilst delving into more wistful pastures for older viewers. There’s a wonderfully inventive feel to the film – a host of Heath Robinson-esque inventions, some really appealing visual tricks (a repeated trope of the Brown’s home depicted as a doll’s house is a particular pleasure) and of course Ms Kidman’s character which introduces a touch of menace that the original story lacked. Despite so many doubts, the film makers have done credit to Michael Bond’s original creation (he himself has said that he can ‘sleep easy’ after viewing it) and have successfully ‘opened it up’ to create a satisfying family entertainment, that only the grumpiest viewer will find fault with. A well-deserved hit for the festive season.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney