This article was written exclusively for The Film Magazine by Sophie Cook.
Penguin Bloom (2021)
Director: Glendyn Ivin
Screenwriters: Shaun Grant, Harry Cripps
Starring: Naomi Watts, Andrew Lincoln, Jacki Weaver, Griffin Murray-Johnston, Essi Murray-Johnston
“It must be weird to have wings but not be able to fly.”
Penguin Bloom, Netflix’s new original, is a simultaneously heart-breaking and uplifting true story brought to life by renowned Australian director Glendyn Ivin (‘The Cry’). Based on the eponymous best-selling book, the film stars critically-acclaimed British actress Naomi Watts (The Impossible; King Kong) as Sam Bloom, and fellow Brit Andrew Lincoln (‘The Walking Dead’) as her husband. Penguin Bloom is an honest, emotional depiction of trauma, loss, and nature’s perseverance in spite of great personal tragedy.
Whilst holidaying in Thailand, Sam has a paralysing accident which changes her and her family’s lives forever. Penguin Bloom explores the family’s journey to acceptance, and their unlikely companionship with an injured baby magpie, Penguin. Though at times seemingly cliché, the similarity and symbolism between Sam, who is paralysed from the chest down, and Penguin, who can’t fly, is the most important aspect of the narrative. Penguin Bloom doesn’t shy away from such metaphorical imagery – its poignant symbolism is excessive at times, but thoroughly effective.
Naomi Watts’ performance throughout this film is a marvel. She impressively becomes Sam Bloom, exploring her trauma and suffering elegantly, with emotional power that soars through the screen. Watts displays realness and depth from start to finish, and has the audience crying and smiling – sometimes all at once. There is, of course, pressure on Watts and her castmates to deliver their real-life characters sensitively and sympathetically, and she brilliantly hits the mark. She explores Sam’s suffering realistically, yet empathetically, without over-dramatising it. Like in The Impossible, Watts creates a believable, emotive character who ensures you take the emotional journey with her.
The sensitive and thought-provoking subject matter shown in Penguin Bloom is reflected in similar Australian drama Babyteeth, directed by Shannon Murphy. Babyteeth is a blunt but charming exploration of a young woman dealing with a cancer diagnosis whilst falling in love and rebelling against over-protective parents. It similarly explores the idea of trying to find normalcy in the chaos of life. During a period where both characters are expected to be driven by their illnesses and disabilities, they decide to make the most of their difficult lives through radical choices. Sam searches for new focus through kayaking and looking after Penguin, and Milla (the protagonist of Babyteeth) pursues a supposedly toxic relationship with a drug-dealer named Moses. The powerful and emotional scene of Sam overcoming her fears and learning to kayak for the first time echoes the freedom Milla obtains by breaking the rules and continuing her relationship with her new boyfriend. These choices are decidedly dangerous, but they bring joy and meaning to their currently mundane lives. It’s arguable that Penguin Bloom fails to be as risk-taking and edgy in its artistic choices when compared to Babyteeth, but it shines nevertheless because of the power of its story.
Despite the lack of edge, the narrative manages to be unique and insightful because of the film’s perspective provided by Noah (Murray-Johnston), Sam’s eldest son, allowing each of us to see the trauma through the eyes of innocence. Murray-Johnston’s narration and viewpoint gifts us the ability to experience the story in a different way than one might expect, increasing empathy towards this tragic, yet uplifting, real story. Furthermore, the provocative imagery and relationship between Sam and Penguin add such an uplifting, heart-felt side to the story that effectively contrasts with the drama and emotion of their human struggles. The portrayal of perseverance between Sam and Penguin, and their journey of happiness and freedom together, gives Penguin Bloom a joyous and moving focus which is explored passionately.
This film is an impressive, powerful portrayal of the Bloom family’s story, and explores intense themes delicately and sensitively, but not without strong poignance and dramatic impact. Penguin Bloom should be added to your Netflix watchlist – it is powerfully thought-provoking, and artistically showcases the talent involved in creating this project. The phenomenal performance by Watts is reason enough to watch this sweet, sad and subtle Australian story.
Written by Sophie Cook
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