THE STORY – A photographer and his family find hope and solace in an injured magpie chick.
THE CAST – Naomi Watts, Andrew Lincoln & Jacki Weaver
THE TEAM – Glendyn Ivin (Director), Shaun Grant & Harry Cripps (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 95 Minutes
By Dan Bayer
The first thing to know about “Penguin Bloom” is that it is based on an inspirational true story. This is a feel-good family film in all the perfect Hollywood ways that the phrase “based on an inspirational true story” suggests. In 2013 on a family trip to Thailand, Samantha Bloom fell through a rotted railing and broke her spine in two places, rendering her paralyzed from the chest down. A year later, her children brought home an injured baby magpie (nicknamed Penguin because of its tuxedo-like coloring), and the little thing pierced right through Samantha’s deep depression and she started to live again. The second thing to know about “Penguin Bloom” is that it is one of the most beautifully shot films of the year – whether you’re talking about 2020, when the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, or 2021, when it is finally premiering on Netflix in time for Oscar consideration (of all the things the COVID-19 pandemic has done, the way it has thoroughly confused everyone’s year-end best-of lists is one of the most annoying).
Naomi Watts may be the face on the poster, but cinematographer Sam Chiplin, late of the beautiful-looking but otherwise turgid Aussie romance “Dirt Music,” is the real star – not that Watts isn’t good! On the contrary, her performance is one of her finest in years. Refusing easy sentimentality, even when the screenplay would seem to warrant it, Watts fully embraces Samantha’s bone-deep depression, playing her with a melancholy inwardness that will be all too familiar to the many people who have barely gone outside in the past ten months. And who could blame her, when the outside is as gorgeously colored and inviting as it is here? Chiplin has assembled a film full of images that put any number of recent films to shame with their painterly beauty. The normal adjectives that describe the beauty of nature don’t seem to be enough to describe just how good this film looks. Scenes don’t just glow with sun-dappled beauty; the landscape isn’t merely lush with foliage and the water is so much bluer than the bluest blue you’ve ever seen. This is a stupefyingly beautiful film to look at and it’s not just the colors and the way the film plays with light and shadow. The framing is also powerful, as Chiplin keeps Samantha constantly isolated onscreen, separate from her family even when they’re together.
All of this is, of course, in direct service to the story: Samantha was an avid outdoorswoman and her injury has led her to believe that she cannot enjoy the outdoors the same way ever again. Penguin, too, belongs outside but cannot safely live there until she is fully healed. Their journeys mirror each other, but while Penguin’s injuries are external, the injuries holding Samantha back are more internal and Watts does superb work charting her journey back to herself. The pure colors and sweeping camera movements beckon for curtains to be pulled back and doors to be opened, calling for Samantha and Penguin to come out and play.
If all of this sounds like plot and character beats you’ve heard before, you’re not exactly wrong. Nothing that happens in “Penguin Bloom” will come as any surprise to anyone, but this is not a film about pushing the boundaries of narrative visual storytelling. This is a feel-good family film, and while the plot may be rote, the high level of craftsmanship keeps it engaging. Director Glendyn Ivin keeps everything moving at a brisk pace, allowing the actors their moments to shine (and all of them get one, from Andrew Lincoln’s passionate supportive husband to Rachel House’s no-bullshit kayak instructor) without letting the film get too sticky-sweet. The cinematography is all the candy-coating the film needs, subtly pushing forward a message that we all need to hear as the pandemic approaches the year-long mark: There is such beauty in the world and the fear that we may not be able to enjoy the outdoors again is something we all must push through so that we can start to become whole again.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Stunningly gorgeous cinematography and an emotional, lived-in performance from Naomi Watts elevate this inspirational family drama.
THE BAD – Plot, themes, and characterization are all rather standard-issue, disabled/family drama boilerplate.
THE OSCARS – None