Antique conceit meets high-concept story in Paul King’s big-screen adaptation of the Michael Bond classic
There is no Englishman more purely, endearingly English than the Englishman from overseas. For these outmoded vessels of British colonialism, high tea falls around six o’clock and Christmas simply isn’t Christmas without the Queen’s speech at 3pm GMT. It makes no difference whether the Englishman in question is sipping pink gin out in Kuala Lumpur, marooned on an Antigua veranda or perched in the trees down in Darkest Peru. Nor does it much matter if the man is really a man.
Paddington, directed by Paul King from the original Michael Bond stories, spins the tale of a small bear (voiced very ably by Ben Whishaw) weaned on marmalade jars and idealised notions of England. The film is as warm as an eiderdown and as fluffy as its feathers. Cast out of his forest home, Paddington hops a cargo ship and comes to London, where his decorous dreams bump up against modern reality (or at least an airbrushed facsimile of modern reality). England, it transpires, is not quite what he envisaged. “Hardly anyone wears a hat or says hello.”
And yet London is a melting-pot; it thrives on immigration. On his first night in the city, Paddington finds himself adopted by a loving, dysfunctional family (headed by Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins) who live in a vast, pastel-coloured Notting Hill home. The bear rekindles the family’s dampened notions of tolerance and decency. They, in turn, ride to his aid when he is targeted by a cantankerous neighbour (Peter Capaldi) and a vampish vivisectionist (Nicole Kidman, gleefully channelling the spirit of Cruella De Vil). Along the way, Paddington’s English odyssey drags him from the station to moneyed W10 and finally a mile down south, to a frantic climactic showdown inside the Natural History Museum. Sadly, we never get to see what he makes of the regions.
Full credit to the film-makers, who manage to map their digital bear against his human co-stars and marry Bond’s antique conceit to a high-concept story. Paddington runs gamely through a heightened, picture-book London, stumbling on occasion through a mess of caffeinated, slapstick set-pieces, but keeping its head as it spirits us along for the ride. Is it a problem that the film’s tone amounts to a cherry-picked jumble of second-hand elements (the script raids 101 Dalmatians, while the stylised tableaux tip a hat to Wes Anderson)? Possibly not; it only chimes with the message of inclusivity. The city, after all, is nourished by square pegs and imports and foreign ingredients given a local spin. “In London nobody’s alike,” concludes Paddington. “Which means that everyone fits in.”
This, presumably, applies to Jim Broadbent’s white-haired antique dealer, who came to the UK on the Kindertransport, and to the beaming Afro-Caribbean musicians who play outside on the street. But it also, of course, applies to Paddington himself, another modern-day migrant in search of a new life. Paddington stows away on a ship in order to access the UK. He is then housed and fed by British taxpayers. So far as I could tell, he has no intention of finding a job for himself. But so what, who cares? He adds to the mix; we are lucky to have him. And his story is so gently affirming, it might just melt the heart of a Ukip MEP.
This article was written by Xan Brooks, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 19th November 2014 13.40 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010