The Special Relationship shows increasing signs of fatigue from Trump’s kicks and punches. His state visit to the Island Kingdom is off again, the reason cited last Friday in a midnight tweet being that Donald can’t stomach a bad real estate deal, especially one brokered by an African-“American” agent: “I am not a big fan of the Obama Administration having sold perhaps the best located and finest embassy in London for ‘peanuts,’ only to build a new one in an off location for 1.2 billion dollars. Bad deal. Wanted me to cut ribbon-NO!”
Damage control by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attempted to recast this “decision” as a thoughtful move by the U. S. President that would allow the British prime minister to “concentrate on Brexit.” Rex would have us believe that the quicker Theresa May crosses Angela Merkel off her dance card, the quicker she can trip across the Atlantic Ocean and into Trump’s waiting arms.
Luckily for those fretting about the state of Anglo-American relations, two cinematic imports from the U.K. are doing their best way to assuage the hurt.
Both feature bears.
One is gruff on the outside and tender on the inside. He roars in anger at distant dictators and nearby political predators intent on doing him and his clan in. He prowls through caverns of the War Rooms in search of a fight. He scratches his furless haunches and meat-fed belly. He slurps at his cigar and constantly smacks his lips, not over a pot honey, but in anticipation of the next decanter of whiskey to be emptied into his glass. Never mind that this fearsome, but ultimately feeling, animal often referred to those who opposed him in politics and in wars, both hot and cold, as “bears.” This beast is orsine unpredictability incarnate.
The other movie bear is a quarter the size of the first, bald nowhere, and never rude. He continually reminds us of his beloved aunt’s advice to him back in his Peruvian homeland: “If we are kind and polite, the world will be right.” This little fellow in orange hat and blue coat repeats this mantra even into the scowling faces of outsized bullies and bad guys. In other words, he’s a resolute practitioner of Appeasement. This policy would have put him straightaway into the bad books of bear number one, but even he (bear, the first) could not but love this cute and cuddly critter, one who wins hearts and minds not by heroic oratory and aerial bombardment, but through unflagging adherence to the above-cited categorical imperative.
Both creatures have a penchant for cockamamie schemes, from opening up second fronts in the Dardanelles to trying to use a pawful of homemade marmalade to glue back a clump of accidentally-shorn hair onto a snoozing client’s head.
I refer, of course, to two residents of London: Winston Churchill of Number 10 Downing Street and a South American immigrant domiciled at 32 Windsor Gardens. The former is played with fateful relish by Gary Oldman in Joe Wright’s The Darkest Hour, the latter voiced as an emulsion of wispiness and resolve by Ben Whishaw in Paul King’s pitch-perfect Paddington 2.
There are more similarities than differences between this kids book brilliantly brought to cinematic life and the mildly revisionist ode to the forced Brexit of 1940. Both screen figures are fabrications: the one by CGI, the other by jowly prosthesis. It is true at Paddington is a bear more humane than the humans, and that Winston is a human more bearish than the bears. But in the end they both just want to be hugged: the prime minister by his devoted wife (the sartorially and syntactically smart, Kristin Scott Thomas), and Paddington by his adopted Brown family, headed by the eternally upbeat mother (Sally Hawkins) and the oh-so-reasonable father (Hugh Bonneville, on long-term leave from Downton Abbey), a man in midlife crisis who’s nonetheless able to marshal the resources of youth at the required moments.
These parallels are buttressed by the music. Listen carefully to both soundtracks and you’ll hear a crescendo of similarities that effortlessly reveal each as the work of the same musician, Dario Marianelli. The Darkest Hour marks the composer’s fifth collaboration with director Joe Wright; Marianelli won an Oscar in 2008 for his score to Wright’s Atonement in which, as is characteristic of his considerable oeuvre, the piano, alone or surrounded by strings and ignited by percussion, is the movie’s motor. It spurs Wright’s baroque visual and narrative designs with crisp repetitions or expertly slows the pace when love and/or melancholy must be indulged.
Educated in Florence and London, Marianelli is new to the burgeoning Paddington franchise; with part three of the series rumored, the Italian will surely remain on board, as his energetic brand of chug-chug minimalism, crystalline piano pathos, and knack for cartoon pop are just right for the Bear’s happy misadventures and gifts for furry friendship. Having an Italian plucking the soundtrack (and heartstrings) is a nice touch given that the film gently chides Brexit-fueled xenophobia. Paddington 2 gives us—literally, in the case of the film’s Macguffin—a picture book London of cultural, ethnic and economic diversity set in gleaming Georgian streets and in grand houses that in the real world beyond the screen go for a minimum of ten million British pounds. Windsor Gardens is definitely not an off location, but it happily welcomes all colors, creeds and levels of hirsuteness.
Yes, the residents must endure a rabid nationalist neighborhood-watchman (self-appointed) who hates the diminutive foreigner, but otherwise, visual and musical harmony prevail among the populace, even as we frolic through, and marvel at, the interspecies hijinx, the goofy break-ins, goofier pratfalls, the Buster-Keatonesque train chase, and winking allusions to (and jokes about) movies, theatre, and literature that delight the knowing adults even as the younger folk give into the giggles. Marianelli’s score stokes the comedy without distracting from it. He’s adept at adding pep to the action and airbrushing tender asides with sweet or plaintive sounds. The multicultural notes are struck with Calypso interpolations by a certain D Lime. And it might just be the case that Marianelli built into his soundtrack hidden musical structures that only careful analysis of the original score would reveal about a crucial melodic puzzle played on organ keys at the movie’s crux.
A shining, resounding example of how brilliant and fun a sequel can be, Paddington 2 is destined to be a classic not just because of its brilliant gags and winning performances, including a show-stealing one by Hugh Grant, who among other hilarious turns, crowns the credits with a Busby Berkeley-style jailhouse musical show-stopper. Also vital to the film’s success is its adroit and diverse command of musical sound. In the credits Marianelli is called the “Composer.” This might strike one as slightly pretentious, but what the designation rightly says is that Marianelli takes diverse ideas and techniques and puts them together with skill, cleverness, and real flair.
Marianelli’s piano-centrism can keep a Peruvian bear on the move and it has won him an Oscar, but it is not right for Blood-on-the-Sand, Tears-and-Sweat, We-Shall-Fight-on-the-Beaches Churchill. This fact is made all too clear when The Darkest Hour soundtrack begins with a navel-gazing solo prelude played by A-list Icelandic pianist Vikingur Ólafsson. These strains bring to mind a previous Oldman screen outing as an imperious hero—the baleful piano basher, Ludwig van Beethoven in Immortal Beloved of 1994. Indeed, Marianelli seems to take a page out of the haughty German’s own exercise in minimalist musing—the Moonlight Sonata.
Thus the filmmakers squander the protagonist before he has said a word, eloquent or otherwise. To be sure, Marianelli is skilled at evoking fatefulness: he can do the scrim of strings portending doom; the snap of snare when decisiveness demands it; the war thunder of timpani occasionally darkening the sonic horizon; bassoon or oboe offering up counter-melodies that freight the action with ominousness. But mostly we are subjected to solipsistic noodling, even during the war-time leader’s famed speeches. These tinklings are rarely silenced, the persistent underscoring oddly absent, for example, in a fantastically counterfactual London Underground excursion made by Churchill on his way to the House of Commons to deliver his history-changing speech. On the ride there he meets the common people, among them a black Caribbean Islander who shakes Churchill’s hand after flawlessly completing a grandiose quotation from Macaulay begun by the prime minister. Churchill would likely have called him a Hottentot. The character might as well have stepped out of the Paddington movie and into The Darkest Hour. So did the piano.
Amidst the period dress and perfect interior, the shadows and smoke, Marianelli’s music for The Darkest Hour is not just from the wrong century. It buzzes around like a meddlesome mosquito more at home in deepest darkest Peru than in the halls of Westminster.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)