One of the most popular – unexpectedly so – films at last year’s LFF was a documentary. Will You Be My Neighbour? turned out to be a multi-award winner, the story of Fred Rogers, who hosted his own TV show in the USA from 1968 to 2001. Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood was aimed at children, teaching them personal qualities like sharing and tolerance, as well as how to deal with their own feelings and questions about life. Rogers was a Presbyterian minister away from the screen and personally came to exemplify everything he advocated in the show. He was also exceptionally popular, not just with his show’s young audience, but their parents as well. His homespun appeal crossed the generations.
At the same time last year, Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? garnered a a slew of plaudits, going on to be nominated for several Oscars. There are still plenty of people who think that Richard E Grant was robbed on the night! Put the two films together and you get Heller’s latest, A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood, again based around Fred Rogers, but this time played by Tom Hanks. And it’s a film that’s already creating awards buzz, especially when it comes to his performance. Not that he can put a foot wrong nowadays.
It’s the late 90s, so Mr Rogers is still a household name around the USA for his folksy, homespun children’s show, full of wisdom and common sense, as well as home made puppets and songs he composes himself. Journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) has just become a father and has resumed work as a feature writer on Esquire magazine but his fearsome reputation means that, when his editor wants to run a big feature on American heroes, the only person who will agree to be interviewed by him is Fred Rogers. Inevitably, Lloyd isn’t keen on the idea – it’s just not his style – but, on taking the assignment, he discovers there’s more to his subject than his image. It gets personal as well, as he confronts more about himself and his fractured relationship with his father.
And it’s the father/son dynamic that’s at the core of the story – not just Lloyd’s, even though it occupies a lot of the film, but there’s also some insight into Rogers’ relationship with his two sons, which is something of an eye opener. This is not your usual bio-pic: it’s punctuated by scenes of Philadelphia and New York but they’re all models, based on the ones used in the TV show – for British eyes, more than a little reminiscent of Trumpton. In constructing the narrative, Heller has made the smart move of putting a cynic at the centre of the action, somebody who doesn’t buy the Mr Rogers image in the slightest. And the intriguing thing is that, by the end of the film, he remains something of an enigma. By the end of just over two hours, we might feel that we’ve got to know him rather well, yet a single gesture demonstrates that there’s a large part that he keeps concealed from the outside world even those closest to him. There’s no doubt that he’s remarkably perceptive when it comes to other people but, when questions are directed at him, he masterfully reflects them back at the person asking them.
Hanks, needless to say, is excellent as Rogers, twinkly, gentle and disguising his shrewd mind and talent for communication with that soft voice and homesy manner. Good, too, to see Chris Cooper back in the saddle as Lloyd’s father and Rogers’ near opposite – loud, boozy but with just as much heart. And it’s curious that there’s more than a little similarity in their features, almost as if they’re two sides of the same coin. This isn’t just the schmaltzy, heartwarming stuff it might appear. There’s an element of that, but there’s something deeper, more thoughtful that may encourage you to take a fresh look at your own relationships. This year’s Best Supporting Actor race could end up being deliciously unpredictable – Mr Rogers v Brad Pitt’s stuntman v Jimmy Hoffa v a now-retired Pope. And perhaps Christian Bale’s racing driver coming up on the outside. Cue much lip smacking.
Biography, Drama | Cert: tbc | London Film Festival 12 and 13 October 2019 | UK, 6 December 2019 | Sony Pictures | Dir. Marielle Heller | Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris Cooper, Susan Kelechi Watson, Maryann Plunkett.