by Nadia Bee
Kindness and cascades of fun prevail in this second cinematic outing for young Paddington. It’s a generous story, with runaway steam trains, shenanigans at the barber shop, mischief at the funfair, and lashings of delicious, translucent, golden orange marmalade.
Paddington 2; dir.: Paul King; UK/France 2017, 108 mins. Our Rating: ★★★★★/5
Director Paul King has surpassed himself – Paddington 2 is at least as good as its predecessor, and in some ways, better. It has the most awesome baddie, a richly drawn, multi-faceted villain: Phoenix Buchanan, played by Hugh Grant, who is a revelation in this.
There are faint echoes here of the character he plays in An Awfully Big Adventure, Meredith Potter – but this time in a joyful key. His role is a thesp’s delight – and Buchanan certainly sees himself as a thesp – bursting with every cheerful cliché imaginable. “Ah Larry, Larry“, he intones at one point, “oh, John…” The ghosts of Lawrence Olivier and John Gielgud are like angels at his shoulder.
But Buchanan has problems: imminent penury, and the unfortunate fact that, as his delightfully brisk agent (Joanna Lumley) reveals, he can’t work with other people. One-man-shows and ludicrous, humiliating dog food ads are his destiny. A man has to eat. And out of the blue, good fortune smiles on the dastardly Phoenix Buchanan: Paddington unwittingly holds in his hands the key to his salvation, a present intended for Paddington’s beloved Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton), a book which conceals in its pages clues leading to untold riches; a treasured pop-up book, featuring familiar London scenes. As Paddington turns the pages, and lands on a drawing of a ship floating along London docks, he daydreams, and an animated sequence comes to life. He imagines that Aunt Lucy is on the ship, and that they are finally reunited. It’s a remarkable scene, something one would see in a Michel Gondry film, but even more complex here as it combines cut paper animation, Paddington and Aunt Lucy in CGI, and live action. The multi-layered artifice is magical.
Paddington misses his Auntie very much. If the first Paddington film was compassionate about immigration, and child refugees, Paddington 2 has its mind firmly set on the idea of family reunification. Nowadays, it would be hard for Aunt Lucy to be allowed to visit her young nephew in London.
As before, a love for London and Londoners is at the heart of the story. It is lavishly filmed. This time, St Paul’s Cathedral gets the star treatment, and looks spectacular.
King and co-writer Simon Farnaby have pulled out all the stops to furnish the story with innumerable plot twists and a wealth of loving detail, all integral to the plot, all cumulatively layered, vivid touch by vivid touch.
The film is bursting at the seams with cameos: Jim Broadbent returns as Mr Gruber, the antiques dealer, Jessica Hynes the local newsagent looking for love, Eileen Atkins the fortune-teller at the funfair, and many more. It all adds up to something that will, without a doubt, make successive viewings of the film an intense pleasure.
Young Paddington would not be our hero from Peru were it not for his astounding capacity for mischief. Of course, he must get himself into trouble. He finds himself incarcerated, courtesy of a humourless judge (Tom Conti) – a doubly humourless judge: they’ve met previously, during the tumultuous shenanigans at the barbershop. Things did not go well. Poor Paddington. Life in jail is hard. No bedtime stories, the food is execrable, and the prison cook, Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson), is terrifying.
Everyone who loves Paddington knows that it is at such moments that the plucky little bear truly comes into his own. He is decent, kind, polite, and sees the good in everyone, just as Aunt Lucy taught him when he was little. And there is of course his secret weapon. Steadfast as he is, he is not afraid to use his hard stare, a bear’s stare which reduces even the fearsome Knuckles McGinty to jelly – or marmalade. Ben Whishaw, who plays the role of Paddington, always hits just the right tones, the mix of sweetness, integrity and resolve particular to the adorable ursine hero.
The rapport between Paddington and Gleeson is remarkable, especially since, of course, only one of them is real. Their dialogues feel unhesitatingly credible, and delightful. Gleeson’s transformation from hard nut to heartful baker is great fun. Soon, the austere jail canteen is primped and festooned, and trolleys laden with an infinite variety of cakes and confections emerge out of the prison kitchen. The vibe is pure 1950s English garden fête, and also reminiscent of the attention to detail and use of colour by directors such as Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Wes Anderson. It’s a candy coloured love heart world, bunting galore.
Meanwhile, outside the walls of HM Portobello Prison, a few streets away in picturesque Notting Hill, archvillain Phoenix Buchanan continues his evil deeds… will Paddington’s delightful London family, the Browns (Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin), together with the acid-tongued Mrs Bird (Julie Walters), and all their neighbours – bar the marvellously obstreperous Mr Curry (Peter Capaldi) – finally come to the rescue?
By the third act, one would imagine the film losing just a bit of steam, but instead, this is precisely when steam trains enter the fray and the film picks up speed – and steam! – once more.
Every single performance, real or virtual, is a treat. The comic timing is superb, to the tiniest fraction of a second. When Mrs Brown makes her way into Phoenix Buchanan’s house and snoops around, her husband protests that this is breaking and entering. She retorts that they haven’t broken anything – just as Mr Brown knocks over a vase and it shatters on the ground. This is impeccable comic timing from Hawkins and Bonneville.
In the first Paddington film, Millicent Clyde (Nicole Kidman) had been a marvellous baddie, far more evil than her Mrs Coulter in The Golden Compass – but her role had been written too darkly. The physical violence and the taxidermy were a touch too much, especially for young audiences.
In Paddington 2, Grant’s character, Phoenix Buchanan, fits perfectly. The dreadful deeds are in the right register, in tune with the rest of the film – no child will be traumatised, at least not by the great Buchanan. It’s a playful approach to being a baddie, all slapstick, myriad disguises and impersonations, a very subtle acting approach to playing an unsubtle, vain, hammy actor grasping at his last chance at glory.
The big star of the film is of course Paddington, and the writers have lavished their love on him. The first few moments of the film re-introduce him, in early life. It’s a high-tension sequence where baby Paddington is in mortal danger. It’s a scene of heightened jeopardy, with a big close up of the infant bear’s face – utterly heart-rending — and a powerful start to the film.
Young Paddington is a latter-day Buster Keaton. Ladders, buckets, ceiling fans – one acrobatic gag follows another. He is a resourceful little bear, and in an inspired moment puts a pair of toffee apples to excellent use. There is only one thing missing from his antics. In Paddington 2, we don’t get to hear him growl his name in bear language.
There is one disconcerting, disquieting, but beautiful scene. Mrs Brown dives into a lake to save Paddington – he is trapped underwater, in a train carriage. For a few seconds, the big close up of Sally Hawkins’ face seems like a flashback to her role in this year’s Guillermo del Toro film, The Shape of Water. It is a brief, intense moment. Paddington and Mrs Brown look deeply into each other’s eyes. The gravity of Paddington’s predicament can be read in Mrs Brown’s face. As with Paddington’s scenes with Brendan Gleeson, the realism and intimacy of the exchange is striking, especially considering the actors are interacting with something intangible. The film is able to change register, from bright slapstick to heart-felt emotion, in a tick. That is a feat.
Paddington 2 is a cabinet of wonders, and gloriously comforting – it’s not just a marmalade sandwich. It’s a soothing and joyful marmalade bread and butter pudding, bejewelled with candied orange peel.
Nadia Bee is a writer and filmmaker. She tweets @NadjaBee.