Film review: ‘PENGUIN BLOOM’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Australian drama Penguin Bloom is based on the book by Cameron Bloom about his wife Sam Bloom (Naomi Watts) an active and sporty mother of three boys who was left paralysed from the waist down after a fall from a balcony while on holiday in Thailand.  Wheelchair bound, unable to continue her career as a nurse and grieving the loss of the vigorous outdoor lifestyle that defined her, she bitterly retreats from husband (Andrew Lincoln) her children and the world.   When her son Noah (Griffin Murray Johnson) finds and starts to nurture an abandoned baby magpie, which they name Penguin, it becomes a unifying force in their fractured household helping Sam to embrace life again.

Penguin Bloom could have been an obvious and even cheesy story of healing and self-discovery.  While there are some clunky moments and a few metaphors that strike like a backhander across the face, the film’s honesty and sensitivity makes it believable, affecting and at times confronting.

Fine cast performances are vital in making this mix of illness drama, family breakdown and animal cuteness work.  Naomi watts is wonderfully moving as she captures the fear and bitterness of someone who has seen the life she knew and seemingly her identity suddenly vanish.  She uses nuances of tone and facial expressions rather than lapsing into histrionics to convey Sam’s trauma. There’s a genuinely disconcerting sense of isolation as she sits alone while her rambunctious tween boys stampede through the house the way youngsters do.  Thankfully, she has positive experiences such as her discovery of kayaking – she actually became a successful competitor although much of that sporting career is not explored here – but as the filmmakers have said in interviews, Sam’s life still has peaks and troughs.

Andrew Lincoln, best known for The Walking Dead and the cue card scene in Love Actually, captures husband Cam’s desperation, uncertainty and stoic attempts to handle the situation.  As Cameron Bloom co-wrote the book on which the film‘s based maybe it paints him in a very good light but Lincoln makes the character’s actions believable and he pulls off a convincing Aussie accent.  The youngsters who play the young sons convincingly capture the unbridled energy and occasional crudeness of young boys as well as a child’s confusion at a life-changing event.  Young Griffin Murray-Johnston is particularly good as Noah and at times recalls Greg Rowe’s performance in the original Storm Boy.  Jacki Weaver as Sam’s mother is also terrific once again, adding both humour with her politically incorrect outbursts as well as drama in her attempts to break through Sam’s wall of resistance.

The humans aren’t the only stars here as the film relies heavily on the antics of the numerous birds which play Penguin.  To minimise bird fatigue, apparently about eight magpies were used.  The bird trainers clearly did a remarkable job here as Penguin steals numerous scenes with sight gags and some dramatic moments as Penguin becomes a beloved part of the family.

The film also features impressive direction from Glendyn Ivin and evocative cinematography from Sam Chiplin which captures the stunning vistas of the Bloom’s bayside home as well as more intimate moments of personal distress and happiness.

The subject matter in Penguin Bloom is at times a little grim but this is ultimately a family film with a positive message about the need for nurturing and empathy that should prove uplifting for most viewers.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2

Genre: Drama/ biopic.

Classification: PG.

Director(s): Glendyn Ivin.

Release date: 21st Jan 2021.

Running time: 95 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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