BBC2’s Marvellous lives up to its name

Marvellous, the world’s least-likely biopic, reminds us of the power of kindness.

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I first saw Marvellous, the world’s most unlikely biopic (25 September, 9pm), at a special screening at the BFI Southbank in London. The evening began, inevitably, with a certain amount of backslapping – “Thank you from the bottom of our hearts to all the wonderful people at . . . blah, blah . . .” – and, as a result, I sensed a nasty little maggot of resistance beginning to squirm inside me. Also, it was a Monday night. I wasn’t in the mood for a feel-good movie about a man with learning difficulties whose positive attitude to life perhaps contains a lesson for us all. Blurgh!

Then, something happened. The maggot turned into a dam, which promptly burst. When the titles rolled 90 minutes later, my husband turned warily to his hardbitten hack wife, only to find that her face was a veil of tears. “What a wonderful, wonderful thing,” she said, her lower lip trembling like Gwyneth Paltrow’s on Oscar night.

This film should be prescribed – as a wonder drug for cynicism generally and more specifically as a balm against the intemperate and increasingly stony-hearted rationalism of Richard Dawkins et al (it may also, now I think about it, prove a highly effective tonic for anyone made slightly queasy by Ian McEwan’s latest novel). Before I get to the film’s performances, writing and
direction, I need to say two things.

First, it is very good finally to see a film about kindness, art so rarely deigning to bother itself with this most necessary of virtues. Second, it’s heartening to know that it is possible to make a film in which faith appears not as the wellspring of weirdness, sanctimony and cruelty but as a quiet source of hope and sustenance in the lives of those lucky enough to have it. Should we thank Tom Hollander’s Rev for this? I don’t know. All I can tell you is that Marvellous had among its characters a Church of England vicar (played with huge charm by Nicholas Gleaves) who was every bit as flexibly tender as Adam Smallbone and a Christadelphian whose heart was as big as Windermere.

Marvellous is the true story of Neil Baldwin (Toby Jones), a man with learning difficulties who, through sheer force of personality, became, among many other things, a circus clown, a student adviser at Keele University and, most wondrously of all, the kit man at Stoke City when it was managed by Lou Macari (Tony Curran). Jones played him brilliantly, turning in an understated performance that combined innocence and wryness to powerful effect. He was helped in this by the decision of the film’s writer, Peter Bowker, and its director, Julian Farino, to include several scenes in which Jones appeared as himself in conversation with the real Neil Baldwin – a trick that somehow nipped any sugariness in the bud.

It was also helped by Bowker’s pitch-perfect script, which was as natural sounding as a conversation overheard on the top deck of a bus, and by the fine supporting performances of Gemma Jones as Neil’s scripture-quoting mother and of Greg McHugh as his lifelong friend Malcolm. Farino’s direction, so deft, quirky, witty and attentive to important details (buildings as well as moods; rooms as well as body language), kept you close. The misery that most of the audience – primed for bullying and abuse in depictions of the disabled – must have been expecting, never came. But who could have felt short-changed? The triumph that Neil managed to wrest from almost any situation, however quotidian, was drama enough. The film was funny, too: proper, old-fashioned funny, like school or your sarky kid brother.

“I’ve always wanted to be happy,” said Neil, at one point. “So I decided to be.” On the page, this seems a bit like Forrest Gump. In context, though, it felt to me to be painfully true and wise. It was the film’s unprecedented display of kindness that made me blub, by which I mean the way that people took Neil at his own estimation, accepting him for what he was: a slow and sometimes frustrating person and yet a lovely, determined, inspiriting one, too. (That and its sweet soundtrack of hymns and other songs performed by choir and ukulele.) But it’s this that has stayed with me: the film’s unspoken conviction that blessings can and must be counted. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris

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