At the start of Marielle Heller’s odd, beguiling drama, an avuncular, smiling, grey-haired man enters a cosy-looking house on a TV stage set. As he takes off his jacket and puts on a cardigan, replaces his shoes with sneakers, he quietly sings a song: “It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood (sic), a beautiful day for a neighbor, would you be mine? Could you be mine?”
And while European audiences might be wondering at this point what the hell is going on, Americans of a certain age will smile warmly, perhaps even wipe a tear away.
For over 30 years, Fred Rogers hosted a TV show on PBS which became a huge favourite with young children and their parents. In Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Rogers used folksy stories, songs and glove puppets to teach kids about their emotions, asking why they felt angry or sad and what they might do with these feelings.
Over the years, he discussed everything from death to divorce and sibling rivalry. His guests included children with disabilities, and his show was far-sighted, way ahead of its time. Mr Rogers changed the life of many a small child, and in A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, he changes the life of a grown-up.
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Esquire journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is a very good writer, not such a terrific person. He’s a bit of a misanthropist and also has anger issues relating to his absent dad. Lloyd has recently had a baby with his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) and is determined to be a stand-up dad, but no one is impressed when he meets his own father Jerry (Chris Cooper) at his sister’s wedding and starts a fist fight.
He still bears the scars of this juvenile confrontation when his editor asks him to do a short profile of the children’s entertainer Mr Rogers. Lloyd is outraged. “I’m an investigative journalist,” he protests – but eventually travels to Pittsburgh to visit the set of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
He’s bewildered as he watches Fred (Tom Hanks) go through his act, singing into the camera and using strange voices as he works his puppets. But when he sits down to talk to Rogers, Lloyd finds it harder to sneer.
He intends to ask a few perfunctory questions and get out of there, but an interview with Fred soon turns into an interview about Lloyd. Rogers senses the journalist’s anger and seems anxious to help. When Fred listens, he gives you his complete attention, an attitude so rare that even the hardened cynic Lloyd falls for it and – eventually – starts talking.
An avuncular relationship develops and, meanwhile, Lloyd’s real dad Jerry is working hard to re-establish contact. He’s sick and wants to make amends. Will Lloyd be big enough to forgive him?
There are at least a dozen moments when A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood might easily have dipped into mawkishness and cheap sentiment, but somehow it never does. Even Lloyd can’t pick a hole in Fred’s niceness: it’s 100pc genuine, an almost terrifying level of decency vast enough to become a kind of national well.
When Fred speaks, quietly, almost haltingly, you can practically feel your blood pressure dropping. “It’s you I like,” he sings at one point, “the way you are right now.” His humility is humbling.
Hanks is brilliant here. His Fred is big-hearted, but no pushover, and at one point, when Lloyd is being particularly obnoxious, you can see a flash of steel in Mr Rogers’ eyes as he patiently answers him. At another, while some children sing, Rogers stares dreamily into the camera, his stillness electrifying.
Because Tom Hanks tends to play ordinary men, modest individuals who don’t see themselves as heroes, it’s easy to take him for granted, overlook his talent. But he’s an extraordinarily fine screen actor, as good in his way as De Niro or Pacino.
As the furious Lloyd, Welsh actor Rhys provides a very effective counterpoint, his rage dissipating as it crashes off the impassive cliff face of Mr Rogers. And Cooper brings real pathos to the role of Lloyd’s worn-out, wounded father.
It’s a lovely film, made in the beautiful, gentle spirit of Fred Rogers’ TV show. In one particularly touching scene, he and Lloyd are on the subway in New York when some school kids see Mr Rogers and begin singing: “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…” As Fred smiles beatifically, the whole carriage joins in.
A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood (PG, 109mins) – 4 stars
Films coming soon…
Parasite (Song Kang-ho, Chang Hye-jin, Cho Yeo-jeong); Dolittle (Robert Downey, Emma Thompson, Michael Sheen); Underwater (Kristen Stewart, Vincent Cassel); Birds Of Prey (Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead).
At the Movies: Your guide to all the week’s new releases
The Lighthouse (16, 109mins) – 3 stars
One gloomy morning, two gnarly keepers arrive on a remote Atlantic rock to take charge of a lighthouse. One of them, Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is young and chippy, the other, Wade (Willem Dafoe), a salty dog who disappears at night to genuflect naked in front of the giant lantern. They’re soon at odds and when an Atlantic storm strands them for weeks on end, things get nasty. Robert Eggers’ film is splendidly photographed and, in its excellent first hour, summons a terrible atmosphere of dread, like Hitchcock doing Beckett. But once the veneer of civilisation slips, the film spirals into pretension, unpleasantness.
Queen & Slim (16, 132mins) – 3 stars
Coming down with style, lacking substance, Melina Matsoukas and Lena Waithe’s Queen & Slim features two fine performances from Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith. She is Queen, he is Slim, and when we first meet them, they’re out on a Tinder date. As Slim is driving her home, they’re pulled over by a racist cop, who uses excessive force. They end up accidentally shooting him and take off across America like a latter-day Bonnie & Clyde. Their developing relationship is convincingly portrayed, and Queen & Slim is very nice to look at, but this drama is slight, and its race politics seem tacked on, convenient.
Richard Jewell (15A, 131mins) – 3 stars
Clint Eastwood has made some dodgy films over the last few years, but this isn’t one of them. It’s based on a true story and stars the excellent Paul Walter Hauser as Richard Jewell, an eccentric young man who’s always dreamed of becoming a cop. He’s working as a security guard at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996 when he notices a suspicious package. Richard helps clear the scene before it goes off, saving many lives, but then becomes the FBI’s chief suspect. Clint loves stories about lone American heroes, and strings this one out skilfully with help from a fine cast, including Sam Rockwell and Kathy Bates.
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