Paddington is hilarious, charming and assertive in its politics. It tells a better story about being British than any politician has.
Writing about Paddington poses a challenge. How does one discuss such a political film without losing sight of the fact that it’s a hugely fun children’s film? My solution is to do a mini-review about how wonderful it is before I start pontificating about things like national identity.
During the finale of Paddington there is a moment when the titular bear experiences what the BBFC calls ‘mild threat.’ And as his survival hangs in the balance, I could hear all of the children in the cinema simultaneously gasping. They had clearly been completely won over by it and so had I.
It is funny throughout mixing slapstick, satire, visual gags and nice wordplay. It is cute and warm hearted without being sentimental. The cast is pretty much perfectly chosen and the performances they deliver are great. Particularly remarkable is Nicole Kidman clearly having a riot as the villain.
More impressive still is that Paddington makes an argument about what it is to be British that is more impressive than any politician has managed. Through Paddington’s endearing eyes we see the gap between the picture Britain presents to the world and the reality of what happens when the world comes to Britain. He comes to London because of an absurdly old fashioned explorer, who was befriended by Paddington’s Aunt and Uncle during a visit to ‘darkest Peru.’ He tells them that he comes from a land where people are polite, fair and (invoking the memory of wartime evacuees) kind enough to home the children of strangers if necessary.
When he eventually arrives in London, Paddington finds an altogether harsher reality. Notwithstanding the fact that he is a paragon of the kind of decency on which British people pride themselves – impeccably well-mannered, well-meaning and honest – he finds precious little decency in return. Hugh Bonneville’s stuffy risk analyst frets that Paddington’s story about an earthquake that destroyed his homeland and the explorer who invited him to London are invented to garner money and pity. Peter Capaldi’s meat paste eating neighbourhood busybody worries that Paddington will bring with him ‘jungle music’. In addition, to these archetypes of middle and working class suspicion there is the altogether more malevolent figure of the director of taxidermy at the
British Natural History Museum (Nicole Kidman) who is glad Paddington is in the UK but only so she can add him to her collection. She is perhaps a representation of those in power who see migrants as a resource to exploit rather than people worthy of respect.
The film is if anything to soft on the UK. An immigration lawyer who reviewed the film concluded that not only Paddington but the kindly family who take him in would have faced prison.
While the way Britain treats migrants would reasonably promote anger and shame that is not (of course) what the film does. It calls forth our better angels and challenges us to be the people the explorer promised we would be. There are characters with warmer instincts notably Sally Hawkin’s illustrator who cajoles her family into taking Paddington in. She’s the kind of progressive minded Briton who is treated by her contemporaries as an affront to our national predilection for common sense, before latter generations lionise them as exemplars of British decency. Bonneville and Capaldi’s characters are given their chance to repent. And Paddington eventually finds a place in London and comes to be accepted much as Huguenots, Jews, Irish, Germans, Indians and Caribbean eventually were.
Paddington is an effective challenge to the country that made it: if you are proud of your purported decency show it consistently. Rather than showing grave suspicion followed invariably by inevitable acceptance, cut out that initial unpleasant and unbecoming phase of hostility. Which is I think you’ll agree an impressive message to convey via a film about a marmalade obsessed bear!
P.S. I’d heartily recommend the Economist’s culture blog’s take on Paddington: