Director Glendyn Ivin’s melodrama Penguin Bloom comprises two key plot strands – one involving a human and the other an animal – which have unsubtle intersecting metaphors.
While vacationing in Thailand, Sam Bloom (Naomi Watts) falls off a ledge and becomes a paraplegic. Months after the accident, while she is in the throes of deep depression, her husband Cameron (Andrew Lincoln) and their three young boys (Griffin Murray-Johnston, Felix Cameron and Abe Clifford-Barr) bring into the family home an injured magpie they name Penguin, pledging to nurse it back to health. And so: a bird learning to fly again coupled with the story of a wheelchair user whose spirits are broken.
Insulating Penguin Bloom a little from complaints that it trades in heavy-handed metaphors is the fact it was based on a true story (adapted from a book by Cameron Bloom and Bradley Trevor Greive). It reminded me of Craig Monahan’s gentle 2014 drama Healing, which was inspired by a real-life initiative that had prisoners working in a sanctuary for injured raptors – thus ripe with symbolism invoking broken wings and broken people.
The idea of an animal’s physical and behavioural transformation mirroring a person’s is an interesting and multifaceted concept. Are we for instance projecting ourselves on to animals when we see our stories in them, or are some narrative templates – such as triumphing over adversity – so strong they transcend species, bringing a degree of narrative order to a chaotic universe?
It becomes painfully clear early in Penguin Bloom, however, that Ivin – who recently directed two exceptional TV series, The Cry and Safe Harbour – is going to take the easy way out. Even talented directors find it difficult to resist the lure of the voiceover, despite that famous dictum being drilled into their heads since film school: the one about how they ought to “show, don’t tell”.
The person doing the telling in Penguin Bloom is Noah (Murray-Johnston), one of Sam and Cameron’s sons, who begins by reminiscing that “Mum loves the ocean, she always has” and eventually concludes that she “is not the person she once was ... but for me, she’s more than that”. How was anybody not wincing when that line was recorded?
I quickly found myself longing for less yakety-yak and more visual storytelling – only for another dictum, “careful what you wish for,” to start ringing in my head. In one dramatic scene Sam stares at a jar of honey and pushes it off the kitchen bench, as if to say: my life has been smashed to pieces – a moment so symbolically loaded they put it on the trailer. During another Sam smashes framed family photos with a broomstick, and yes – they put that one on the trailer too.
Meanwhile, Penguin stays busy charming the characters and the audience, softening Sam’s hardened heart and embedding herself into the family’s routines – pottering around the home, stealing a teabag from a mug and generally behaving like a loveable little scamp. The way the bird (several were used during production) is integrated into various scenes – as if it really were a member of the family – is exceptionally well done: props to magpie trainer Paul Mander, who was assisted with modestly used and seamlessly integrated CGI.
When Penguin finds herself in a traumatic situation, I discovered myself more emotionally involved than I thought, genuinely concerned for her safety – well aware that Australian cinema has a reputation for killing off animals (particularly dogs: Mad Max 2, Red Dog, Snowtown, I’m looking at you). I felt more invested in Sam’s journey in the second half too, when she takes up kayaking and Watts’ strong, solemn performance is afforded more space to breathe.
But every once in a while Ivin did something to make me question his motives. Take for example a shot late in the piece, in which Sam looks ahead and imagines herself – smiling, upright and walking happily – beaming back at her. This image comes dangerously close to endorsing outdated and offensive views of disability: particularly the idea that a person isn’t “complete” unless they look and move like the majority.
By this point shouldn’t the film be more interested in the person Sam has become, rather than who she once was? A postscript informs us that Bloom went on to achieve numerous sporting distinctions, as if this were nothing more than a small thing to bung on at the end. It is a final confirmation that Penguin Bloom, while heartening, is more about loss than rebirth. There is a great, moving story to tell about the real Sam Bloom – but this film only gets part of the way there.
• Penguin Bloom is in Australian cinemas now