Michael Gambon

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

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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