Penguin Bloom review – Naomi Watts saved by a magpie in charming drama

An Australian family moves on from tragedy with the help of a bird in a modest and warm-hearted true story

Naomi Watts, an adept and at times electrifying actor, has found herself adrift in recent years. The star who shone bright in Mulholland Drive and King Kong has dimmed with each rotten project, from the disastrous schmaltz of The Book of Henry (a film so bad it was rumoured to have cost director Colin Trevorrow a Star Wars gig), to Gus Van Sant’s maudlin suicide mystery The Sea of Trees (a film that was met with a chorus of boos at Cannes) to clumsy, barely released trans drama 3 Generations. Even her small-screen projects have underwhelmed, whether it be the swiftly cancelled Netflix thriller Gypsy or her role as Gretchen Carlson in the buzz-free Fox News drama The Loudest Voice that was quickly overshadowed by Bombshell (her Game of Thrones prequel was cancelled after a poorly received pilot). It’s frustrating to watch, given what we know she’s capable of, and so with each new performance, fingers remain cautiously crossed.

Penguin Bloom, a modest Australian drama premiering at this year’s semi-virtual Toronto film festival, is by no means a slam-dunk – it’s slight and has notable flaws – but it’s a minor, much-needed victory for Watts, a charming crowd-pleaser that at a normal at-capacity premiere would have led to hearty applause. Based on a true story and the book it inspired, it’s the tale of a family recovering from tragedy. While on vacation in Thailand, Sam (Watts) suffers a devastating fall, one that leaves her mostly paralysed from a spinal cord injury and after arriving back home, she struggles to acclimate to an intimidatingly unknowable new normal. How can she be a functioning and reactive mother to her three young children when she has to rely on her husband (Andrew Lincoln) to help her out of bed? How can she remain hopeful for a future when her options seem so limited? As Sam falls deeper into despair, there’s an unlikely new addition to the family.

When one of her sons brings home an injured magpie on the beach, naming her Penguin, Sam bristles at the disruption but she slowly develops a strange attachment to the bird and realises that if Penguin can recover then in some way, maybe she can too.

Like the symbolism at its centre, it’s not a particularly subtle film but on its own simple terms, it’s one that mostly works. Sam’s tentative connection to Penguin is believably choreographed, echoing her desire to care for her children, to look after a creature even more vulnerable than she is and through some slick wrangling, we can sense a growing chemistry between them. The bird itself is hard to resist, tottering around as if slightly inebriated, winning us over at the same time as the Bloom family, sneakily stealing innumerable scenes from the human cast. That’s also partly because they’re a little too thinly etched to read as real, messy, fully fleshed-out people and at times the characters could just as easily be named Mum, Dad and Sons 1-3. The film leaps almost straight into tragedy so the director, Glendyn Ivin, relies heavily on voiceover to tell us about pre-accident times and instead of showing us a lot of the relationships, we’re told about them instead.

The marriage in particular lacks genuine specificity and Irvin, along with Snowtown screenwriter Shaun Grant, shies away from some of the more interesting nuances that are briefly hinted at with regards to an impossible balance of power. Lincoln has little to do other than tighten his jaw and quietly weep but Watts serves an impressive and, given recent history, important reminder of just how effortlessly she’s able to eschew the trappings of movie stardom to embody a believable everywoman. As mentioned, the characterisation might be thin but she works hard to fill in the gaps and we’re refreshingly spared any predictable histrionics, a far subtler performance than the film often deserves.

The broad strokes are also made more forgivable by Sam Chiplin’s gorgeous cinematography, which carries us all the way to the coast in New South Wales, a swift, sun-drenched vacation coming at an opportune time. It’s a handsomely made and sturdy little movie, mercifully devoid of cloying sentimentality, an old-fashioned throwback for families in search of something safe and superhero-free that might not sing quite as loud as it could have but flies just about high enough nonetheless.

  • Penguin Bloom is showing at the Toronto film festival with a release date yet to be announced

Contributor

Benjamin Lee

The GuardianTramp

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