Dir: Glendyn Ivin. Starring: Naomi Watts, Andrew Lincoln, Jacki Weaver, Rachel House, Griffin Murray-Johnston. PG, 95 mins
Penguin Bloom’s synopsis reads like an Oscar-bait parody: Naomi Watts stars as a woman who, in the aftermath of a tragic accident, befriends a magpie. And yet, unbelievably, the premise is rooted in truth – the film's adapted from Cameron Bloom and Bradley Trevor Greive’s book of the same name, which is based on the experiences of Bloom’s own family.
In 2013, he was on holiday in Thailand with his wife, Sam, and their three young sons, when she fell from a rooftop and was left paralysed from the waist down. Cameron (played in the film by Andrew Lincoln) watched as his wife struggled to adjust to her new reality. Then, out of the blue, an injured magpie tottered into their lives. They named it Penguin, because of its black-and-white colouring. As it healed, the curious creature became a balm for Blooms – Sam, especially.
The metaphors are all perfectly teed up. Here’s the bird that can’t soar, and the woman who’s become afraid to live her own life, let alone leave the house. Director Glendyn Ivin doesn’t resist the obvious; more than that, she invites the tonal equivalent of a big, brass band to draw attention to these parallels. Watch as Penguin’s first flight inspires Sam to take up kayaking, having balked at the idea several scenes before. Schmaltzy though Penguin Bloom is, it’s clever, too, in how it frames all that sincere emotion, presenting its story through the eyes of one of Sam’s sons, Noah (Griffin Murray-Johnston, in a strong debut).
Ivin fully embraces his naivete – the occasional petulance towards his mother’s misery; the anthropomorphising of Penguin (aka Peng), and the need for his voice-overs to gently spell out revelations such as, “mum’s not the person she once was... but to me, she’s much more than that”. The director also allows the camera to gaze in childish wonder at all of Penguin’s avian quirks. It steals teabags. It breaks vases. It poops on every conceivable surface. Bird trainer Paul Mander, and a group of eight different magpies, have helped mould a miniature star far brighter and more expressive than might be expected.
You can see the strings all being enthusiastically pulled by screenwriters Harry Cripps and Shaun Grant – but the film’s emotional manipulations work, even if they’re obvious. Noah’s viewpoint shapes how we see his family’s picturesque house in Sydney’s Northern Beaches, where the real Blooms live. Nature here feels new and ripe for exploration, all sun-dappled and dreamy The waves are always soft, ready to envelop the boys like blankets. Cameron, admittedly, gets a little lost in all this, too easily overshadowed by the more eccentric presences of Sam’s mother (Jacki Weaver, who has the ability to make every sentence sound like both a barb and a compliment) and her kayak instructor (Rachel House, an always steady presence).
Watts’s involvement deserves some level of scrutiny – after all, too many able-bodied actors have exploited these kinds of roles as proof of their transformative abilities or skill in celluloid suffering. But the actor, at least, never presents Sam as a martyr figure. This is a woman raging against her own fate, who cuts herself off from others because she’s “scared that all this anger will just come spewing out of me”. Watts gives her room to be irritable, ungracious, and desolate, all while Ivin has a small, feathered hope sit on her shoulder and squawk like a tiny car alarm. It’s an unlikely story, but Penguin Bloom at least makes it a believable one.