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‘Penguin Bloom’ review: A spirited film, but with clipped wings

Naomi Watts as Sam Bloom in ‘Penguin Bloom’ on Netflix   | Photo Credit: Hugh Stewart / NETFLIX

Whenever I see films about an animal companion, it stirs a little dread in me because, well, I always feel the story is bound to end in the creature’s demise. But I gathered my courage to watch Australia-produced Penguin Bloom which did leave me in tears right from the early scenes.

Based on the book by Cameron Bloom about his wife Samantha’s real-life tragedy of being paralysed after injuring her T6 vertebrae – or, as she calls it, her “bra strap” – the film directed by Glendyn Ivin has a memory feel to it.

Naomi Watts and Andrew Lincoln (The Walking Dead) play parents Sam and Cam respectively Many times do we see the distress and confusion Samantha and her family members go through as she grapples with her identity after her accident. Especially considering before her accident, she was often surfing, travelling and playing around with her three rambunctious boys. Sam does not hide her anguish and frustration with her new circumstances from her family. In fact, the dynamic of the home shifts, when the boys openly cry for their father, rather than her if anything arises.

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It is during this bleak and hard-to-watch period that one of the Bloom kids brings home an injured magpie chick. The boys beg their mother for permission to keep the adorable thing, and Sam cannot help but see much of herself in it. Named Penguin for its black and white plumage, the magpie becomes an integral character and catalyst in the film. Penguin offers the occasional dramatic relief in an otherwise deeply sad story, be it its antics of snatching up a dirty plush toy or eating a nauseating concoction of earthworms and egg whites. The realist side of me did wonder how many magpies were employed in the film, but I tamped down that thinking and let myself take in the experience.

Plus, considering the magpie’s symbolism of good luck and good fortune, and in dreams, it seems almost mystical that this squawking bird comes into the Blooms’ lives and awakens something in Samantha that was long dormant after her accident: passion. Funnily, while the film is called Penguin Bloom, Sam’s will to care again blooms as well.

Strong supporting cast

Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook) plays Sam’s mother Jan who often takes care of Sam while her husband is at work. As predicted Jan is deeply disturbed by her daughter’s depression following the accident and does what she can to compensate with cheer around the house, though we see tremors of worry and fear in Weaver’s impeccable performance. Audiences will notice redefined and a varied nature of motherhood in Penguin Bloom: of Sam and her three boys, and of Sam and Jan being the most noticeable. And then there is Sam and Penguin, as the Bloom family adopts and nurtures the magpie as one of their own.

The Bloom boys, Noah (Griffin Murray-Johnston), Rueben (Felix Cameron) and Oli (Abe Clifford-Barr) generated strong support for the storyline in this family film. The young actors balanced trepidation, innocence and child-like energy to the Bloom household, offering up many moving moments.

One of the most welcome forces to the film is Rachel House (Soul, Thor: Ragnarok) who takes Sam under her wing – pun very much intended – and teaches her a way to acknowledge her new form without tiptoeing around it. This was probably one of my favourite dynamics in the story which could have used more screen-time. House’s performance is, as usual, one for special mention.

The film captures the Bloom family’s love for all things nature in their Aussie seaside surroundings: lush greenery, open skies and not an urban building in sight. Visually, the film is stunning, not just for these islandic settings, but also for the soft nostalgic approach to Sam Chiplin’s cinematography. A score heavy on the strings from Marcelo Zarvos offers a thoughtful layer of emotion.

There is a beauty to Penguin Bloom more in its emotion than its actual storytelling – which unfortunately became a blind spot for Ivin. If the film had more structure, it would have been paced well and, for me, the film ended a little too abruptly. However, it is clear Watts and Lincoln signed onto the film because they believed in the story of Penguin and the Bloom family – which I love to see. There is rewatch value in Penguin Bloom, and perhaps even an encouragement to read the book upon which this moving story is based.

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Printable version | Feb 27, 2021 12:39:14 PM |

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