Tom Augustine's The Weekend in Film (January 25-26)
Marielle Heller's Can You Ever Forgive Me? was one of the best films of 2018 but its quiet, subtle approach meant that it was overlooked almost entirely. Now, as awards season winds to a close, Heller's latest, the similarly quiet, subtle and really quite wonderful A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (PG), appears to be under the same curse. Going almost unrewarded at most major awards ceremonies, the film - all-too-easily pigeonholed as "the Mr Rogers biopic" - holds treasures galore for those willing to embrace less bombastic fare.
Based on "Can You Say ... Hero?" the Esquire profile of children's television icon Mr Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is undoubtedly concerned with the supernatural propensity for kindness that Fred Rogers had but Rogers himself (played with control and mystery by Tom Hanks) is actually in a supporting role here. The primary focus of the story is Matthew Rhys' hard-hitting reporter, Tom Junod, assigned to profile Rogers for an upcoming issue of Esquire. Tom is struggling with a range of issues, almost all stemming from a fraught relationship with his father (the ever-reliable Chris Cooper). Through his interviews with Rogers, Tom begins to find himself emotionally grappling with the impacts of his childhood on his life, while Rogers' mysterious qualities continue to deepen with every conversation.
The "biopic by way of interview" format is fairly well worn, with the life of an important subject unfolded through their relationship with a reporter assigned to interview them (Hustlers, Frost/Nixon and The End of the Tour are among the best). What makes Neighbourhood such a refreshing iteration of this format is Heller's refusal to "decode" Rogers. Historically known as private and reserved, Rogers provided a kind of channel for other people's pain - what must have been an extraordinary burden for the man. Hanks, in one of his most finely wrought and affecting turns in years, captures a man with an enormous spirit hidden behind walls of kindness, empathy and control.
Not until the final scene of the film does some suggestion of that burden manifest, in a surprising and sublime manner. It's just one example of the tremendous patience and attention to detail the film has paying off in spades. Heller's direction isn't flashy but in its directness, the characters and emotions underneath are allowed to come to the fore. Like Rogers himself, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood doesn't yell the loudest, but its presence and power are stronger for their subtlety. A well-wrought and deeply moving film.
Rating: Four and a half stars