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Paddington 2 is an anti-Brexit film where the villains have the narrowest minds

The film celebrates London's inclusiveness – but candy-coats its inequality. 

Paddington 2 is quite the treat. A tad frenetic, perhaps, with slapstick piled onto snazzy, sweeping camera moves and finished off with more slapstick. A climactic train-bound chase sequence seems to last as long as the other scenes put together, while CGI oozes out of every corner like marmalade from one of Paddington’s over-stuffed sandwiches. My eyeballs needed a long soak in My Neighbour Totoro once it was finished.

But it works. The inclusive, plainly pro-immigration stance of the original 2014 film is carried over here and multiplied, with a welcome anti-Brexit message. The most despicable characters tend to be those with no sense of community or open-mindedness. Islands unto themselves. The villain, a washed-up actor named Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant, having the time of his life), is said to hate working with other people; his whole dastardly plot, which involves stealing an antique book which contains clues to find a stash of treasure, is hatched with a view to financing his one-man show.

Lower down the cast list but every bit as insidious, Peter Capaldi returns from the first film as Paddington’s busybody neighbour, who keeps his front door triple-locked and mistrusts strangers and anyone who represents difference. When things get tense, he whips out his fear-o-meter, cranks the arrow to the highest setting and announces: “I’ve raised the neighbourhood panic level to ‘Wild Hysteria’!”

Culturally inclusive the film may be. Economically, though, it’s a world of wish-fulfilment where poverty has been scrubbed from the capital. When Phoenix, a master of disguise, dresses as a homeless man in order to carry out a robbery, it can only make him more conspicuous, since there don’t appear to be any other homeless people in London. It’s less of a problem once Paddington, found guilty of a crime he didn’t commit, gets banged up in the slammer with a bunch of burly but good-hearted brutes. This, too, is a candy-coloured version of a gritty situation (it is the one time the director Paul King seems to lose his own artistic voice and go for the full Wes Anderson look). But as movie representations of prison life go, it’s still more realistic than The Shawshank Redemption.

King has cast the film deftly, down to the tiniest bit-part and walk-on, though I would take issue with Joanna Lumley playing Phoenix’s agent. Her appearance slightly sours the whole celebration-of-London idea. I’m not saying the extravagant celebrity clout which she put behind the money-burning folly of the Garden Bridge (now thankfully dead in, or rather over, the water) should disqualify her from appearing in any movie which pushes a joyful vision of life in the capital, where people don’t try to get their own way just because they’re famous. But… well, I guess that is what I’m saying.

This has also been the week in which Paddington starred in the Marks & Spencer Christmas advert, in which he mistakes a burglar (Mark Benton) for Santa Claus. Believing himself to be helping with the Christmas Eve delivery, he restores to their rightful owners all the presents that have just been stolen. Ninety seconds of this nonsense and I was covered head to toe in goosebumps, scalp prickling, eyes watering and cockles fully warmed. My 17-year-old daughter, whom I had insisted watch it with me, was unimpressed by my reaction. “Dad, what are you?” she asked.

Then I realised that this was almost as bad as the time when the characters from Pixar’s Inside Out were used to flog Sky subscriptions. It hit me that the wholesome, lovable Paddington had been hijacked for the sole purpose of getting the tills ringing at M&S this Christmas. And I cried all over again.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Credit: Arrow Films
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The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”