When I was seven, my gran called our house. She didn’t call me (I was seven, and therefore a poor conversationalist). She called my mum. “I got a bird,” she said.
My gran lives on a farm in rural East Anglia. It is a very noisy farm, because next to the house, there is a row of trees, home to probably 100 rooks. One day, my gran was walking through the garden. She looked down. She saw a baby rook.
When baby birds fall from trees, their parents cannot take them back for two reasons. Firstly, baby birds are very bad at flying, which is probably a design flaw on the part of whoever invented birds. Secondly, their parents don’t recognise them – they smell different, they seem different, and they won’t be accepted back by the family. This presented my gran with two options: leave the rook; or take the rook.
Hence the phone call in which she said, “I got a bird.” She named the rook Merlin. He was with her for three years. He was loud. He pooped indoors. He wreaked a kind of general havoc. He was absolutely wonderful.
Penguin Bloom is based on the true story of a bird being taken in by a family. After Sam, the film’s protagonist, is paralysed on holiday, she is left grieving for the life she has lost as her family attempt to carry on around her. This is a grief which affects them all – they miss the mother she used to be, the fun they used to have. One son blames himself; the father tries to hold it all together. Finding a baby Australian magpie who has fallen out of a tree, they raise her on their own with very little knowledge of birds at all. In the way of all ‘animal movies,’ Penguin, as the bird is named, changes their lives.
Penguin Bloom is hardly a cinematic masterpiece. Its storytelling is too direct, too ‘on-the-nose,’ and frankly the best acting is done by the birds (played by Australian magpies Gerry, Eugene, Wendell, Maggie May, Clipper, Mavis, Pew, Pip, Hollywood and Swoop). Andrew Lincoln’s Australian accent leaves something to be desired. The filmmaking suffers from clichés, from an expositional voiceover, to a ‘magical’ woman of colour – who helps Sam to find a purpose again – and has no identity, seemingly, outside of this narrative. But nevertheless, when Penguin Bloom is not preoccupied with overstating every scene, there is a sweetness and profundity to it.
Life does not always throw at us that which we can handle. We all learn that the hard way. And when we feel hopeless, having someone to care for, and being loved, is often the only thing we can fall back on. Sam finds purpose again caring for Penguin. When Penguin learns to fly, Sam learns to find ways back to her body – she begins to find meaning in her life again, claim back control, and live life proudly and happily as a disabled woman. Her family are able to bond again, and heal with her. As their oddly-named bird grows stronger, so do they. Sam’s accident has changed their lives, but it doesn’t have to be for the worse. Not every change is bad – sometimes, they just are.
As Penguin and Sam grow stronger, the eldest son also starts to heal. Blaming himself for his mother’s accident, Noah has been consumed with guilt, and convinced his mother no longer loves him. Drawn closer again by Penguin, Noah and Sam are able to talk about the feeling that have been eating away at them; pets provide, after all, a simple way to break the ice.
Merlin, the rook, left my gran after three years. He was ready. He could fly, he could fend for himself. It was sad – it felt like a child moving away, like a pet dying. All loss is hard. But he was off, to be a bird, and as Sam reminds us in Penguin Bloom, birds aren’t meant to stay inside forever. Penguin leaves in Mary Poppins fashion – the family no longer need her, so she can move on. But she doesn’t need them to survive any more either – they’ve done their duty by her, and now she too can ‘be a bird’.
While perhaps not a ground-breaking production, Penguin Bloom has many redeemable features. Rachel House’s acting is a joy, Penguin herself is simply adorable, and the film’s message – that whatever we go through, we can survive – make it a valuable watch nonetheless.