PENGUIN BLOOM

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Glendyn Ivin

Stars: Naomi Watts, Andrew Lincoln, Jacki Weaver, Griffin Murray-Johnston, Rachel House, Felix Cameron, Abe Clifford-Barr, Leeanna Walsman, Gia Carides, Lisa Hensley.

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This uplifting feelgood and life-affirming tear-jerking drama is based on the true story of Sam Bloom (played here by Naomi Watts), a fun loving and active mother of three boys who was left paralysed following an accident during a holiday in Thailand. Unable to feel anything from the waist down and stuck in a wheelchair Sam descended into a deep well of despair and depression. Her photographer husband Cam (Andrew Lincoln, best known for his work fighting off zombies in the popular tv series The Walking Dead) was left to raise their three sons and try and hold the family together. The family is struggling to cope.

The turning point came when the three boys brought home an injured baby magpie that has apparently been abandoned. The boys named the bird Penguin because she was black and white and they nursed her back to health. Initially Sam was indifferent towards the newest avian member of the family, but its perseverance and intelligence soon worked their charms on Sam, and she developed the confidence to get on with her life. She began to heal mentally. Sam had always enjoyed watersports, and she embraced a new challenge and took up kayaking under the tutelage of the upbeat Gaye (New Zealand actress Rachel House, from Hunt For The Wilderpeople, etc) and her brand of tough love. Sam eventually went on to become a champion kayaker.

Cinema is full of this sort of redemption tale of a resilient character coming to terms with a debilitating injury, and while a little formulaic and predictable at times Penguin Bloom is certainly a superior example of the genre.

This uplifting film is based on the 2016 book detailing Sam’s experiences, and has been brought to the screen by Australian filmmaker Glendyn Ivin (Last Ride, etc), who has spent the better part of the decade working in television, and scriptwriters Harry Cripps (who also adapted the recent The Dry) and Shaun Grant (Snowtown, etc). The metaphor of a crippled bird learning to find its wings while helping a crippled Sam to cope with her disability and return to an active life is an obvious one, but thanks to Ivin’s direction the film avoids becoming overly saccharine. There are moments of darkness here, but mainly the mood remains upbeat and Ivin taps into a strong vein of pathos.

The ten trained magpies that play Penguin on screen throughout the film are all superb with winning personalities, although there is some CGI augmentation for some scenes. Kudos to magpie trainer Paul Mander for infusing these birds with plenty of charm.

Watts delivers a superbly nuanced performance here as Sam, running a gamut of emotions from anger, frustration, bitterness and despair to optimism and captures her resilient spirit. She conveys her emotional turmoil well. In a change of pace, Lincoln is solid and has a stoic presence as the patient and supportive Cam. Jacki Weaver is also good in a smaller role as Sam’s mother who is by turns supportive and empathetic but also exasperating, although it’s a role that hardly stretches her. Of the three children, newcomer Griffin Murray-Johnston stands out with a mature and sensitive performance as the oldest son Noah, who is consumed by guilt over his mistaken belief that he was responsible for Sam’s accident.

The film has been beautifully shot on location around Newport beach by cinematographer Sam Chiplin (Dirt Music, etc). And Annie Beauchamp’s production design for the Bloom’s beachfront house is also excellent, giving the home a warm, but at times chaotic lived-in feel.

Over the end credits we get to see photographs of the real Bloom family, including some shots of Penguin, that were taken by Cameron, and it’s clear that some of these candid photographs have been recreated for the film. That is one of the many charming touches that will endear this modest yet engaging film to audiences.

★★★☆

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