A story about redemption and reawakening

A story about redemption and reawakening

Review: Penguin Bloom

Starring Griffin Murray-Johnston, Andrew Lincoln, Jacqui Weaver, Naomi Watts, Rachel House, Felix Cameron, and Abe Cliffard-Barr

Eden – fall – rehab – restoration. It’s the story of the world, of the history of humanity and of many individuals and families.

I’m glad that my first visit to a cinema since pre-COVID days was to see a story like this that was quite well told. I went to Nowra’s lovely Roxy cinema and saw Penguin Bloom, which is one of the several Australian movies that’s arrived on or coming to our big screens with much fanfare at present.

The story of Penguin Bloom is essentially told from the perspective of the main character’s eldest son, Noah Bloom (Griffin Murray-Johnston). Not that he narrates it throughout, but the film begins with a scene in which he’s making a video about his family’s experiences and one of the critical plot developments centres on how he understands the difficult situation that they are dealing with, revealed through something he later says in the video.

The story opens in “Eden”. As Noah sees it, his mother Sam (Naomi Watts), father Cam (Andrew Lincoln) and his two younger brothers have an idyllic life, living on Sydney’s northern beaches, going surfing and having great holidays, including one in Thailand, a place Noah says he really liked.

Until, that is, the fall. In this case, literally. At the top of a tower, Sam leans against a railing which gives way and she falls to the ground below. Her back broken at ‘the bra strap’, the Bloom family’s life becomes a flurry of pain and difficulty as Sam deals with her paraplegia and the family deals with daily activities such as getting to school under the supervision of a father who’s trying really hard, but just not coping well.

Naomi Watts as Sam manages to convey very well the struggle of someone who initially feels that her physically reduced capacity also means that her relevance to the family has been taken away. The real Sam Bloom was heavily involved in assisting Watts to portray things like the process of getting from bed into a wheelchair as realistically as possible, but it is Watts’ own acting ability that enables her to convey the emotional struggle as well. 

Andrew Lincoln as Cam deserves a special mention, if only because of the way he nails the Australian accent. Lincoln is perhaps best known for his role in Love Actually (he’s the guy who has the crush on the recently married Keira Knightley), but you’d think he was born and bred down under from his performance here. Beyond that, he delivers a strong portrayal of a man who’s torn by his love for Sam, but sense of helplessness as her depression dominates the family’s mood and results in the younger boys acting out their own sense of loss of their mother.

Into this fraught situation comes a magpie, which Noah names Penguin (“because he’s black and white”). Penguin had fallen from its nest near the beach, so they take it home and nurse it back to health. The storyline then unfolds fairly predictably, as both the bird’s rehab and recovery parallel Sam’s eventual return to an engagement with life and the love of the people around her. There are some humorous moments as Penguin is allowed to roam free around the house (which is the actual Bloom family home at Newport with its panoramic views of the region) and gets into all sorts of mischief. However, the main contribution that the bird’s arrival makes is that it compels Sam to forget about her own misery for a few moments in order to protect the magpie from itself. This proves to be the trigger for a reawakening of the person inside the damaged body.

That reawakening shifts gear when Sam ventures back into the water – she’d been a keen surfer before Thailand – and takes up kayaking. Under the take-no-nonsense guidance of instructor Gaye (played by the wonderful New Zealand actress, Rachel House), Sam eventually finds a ‘baptism’ into a new life and the story moves from rehab to restoration.

True restoration also requires love. Penguin Bloom also proves itself to be a love story, not only between husband and wife but also between mother and son. Or should I say sons, because the two younger boys (Reuben, played by Felix Cameron, and Oli, played by Abe Clifford-Barr) have been acting out their hurt in various rambunctious ways, but are drawn back into their mother’s embrace as well.

If it weren’t based on a true story, I think I’d have seen this as just smaltzy and hackneyed. Instead, it’s a fascinating tale of how an unlikely hero plays its part in the healing of a damaged soul. That doesn’t mean that some scenes don’t lapse into the smaltzy and hackneyed, but those moments can be forgiven as long as you recall that the story is being told from Noah’s point of view. It’s how he sees the magpie’s role in bringing back to him the mother he thought he’d lost, so it’s forgivable if some cause-and-effect linkages appear too simplistic from an adult point of view.

Popular Australian actress Jacki Weaver plays Sam’s mother. It’s a relatively small part, though as ever, Weaver delivers a credible performance of a character who is somewhat annoying, not showing much understanding of the struggle her daughter is going through.  

Penguin Bloom thus takes its place in the genre of stories about how people damaged by the unpredictability of life discover that their diminished physical capacity doesn’t mean they are no longer fully human. It’s a prolific genre. In Christian circles, many of us know the story of Joni (book released in 1976) who had a diving accident, or the more recent Soul Surfer (book 2004, movie 2011) about Bethany Hamilton who was attacked by a shark, while in Australia many have read Janine Shepherd’s Never Tell Me Never (1995) in which the tragedy was being hit by a car while bike riding.

When told well, these stories resonate and engage us at many levels. They do really challenge us to think about the question of ‘what makes us who we are?’. They portray people who, though physically diminished, and initially despairing that their humanity has been taken from them, eventually discover that this is not so, that love and life are still there to be had. When told well, these stories don’t diminish the pain and anguish in the journey, but do clearly and loudly declare that there is an outcome ahead that’s positive. They are, in a sense, parables of the great story of the gospel.

Penguin Bloom is now playing in cinemas.

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