In June 2016, I was young enough to not really know anything about the EU referendum, but old enough to know that I probably should. I really don’t remember much of the actual campaign at all, but the feeling of the whole thing permeated – and never really went away. The last week felt like the End Times for all involved; both Vote Remain and Leave instigators stressed that the Rapture would be invoked by everything other than their preferred outcome. And it was when I – and a lot of people of my generation – began to realise something about our country.
Because a funny thing happened with this referendum. It infected our culture. The dark genius of the Vote Leave campaign was in how they managed to take a complicated, heady situation, and turn it not into a referendum on vaguely economic viewpoints, but what it means to have sovereignty, identity, control in modern Britain. It tapped into something deeply primal in how this country views itself, and what it projects onto both itself and the world, becoming an emotional reaction to decades of underthought that spiralled completely out of orbit. By the end, even if we voted to remain, there was no un-ringing this bell.
I’ll get it out of the way here and stress that it is absurd and insulting to ignore the wealth of factors that lead people to vote Leave, to blanketly label Brexit voters as racists in the carelessly easy way someone wants to dismiss a dissenting opinion. But the level of vitriol this provoked over what it means to be British, and more importantly what it means not to be, with an obsession with sovereignty, is a direct result of the way the Leave campaign conducted itself. Onwards to a talking bear.
Paddington 2, obviously, is not about fish tariffs, or insulin prices, or any of the now-tragically farcical talking points of Brexit. But, more than any other piece of media about the topic (and far more subtle and meaningful than the cultural reaction to Trump across the pond), the film manages to make a fairly definitive statement on the ideas of nationalism and patriotism that have poisoned our minds, without a hint of didacticism, moral superiority, or reductionist naiveté. It just calmly, gently puts forward a case for how the world could be,
It obviously trickles down from the top. Paddington is not a superhero. He is, save for the whole talking bear thing, fairly normal. His superpower is his fundamental empathy, and kindness, and it’s deeply, deeply sad that it seems to be an extraordinary anomaly. Nothing he does is truly out of the ordinary. Paddington works his ass off at the beginning to buy the pop-up book of London for Aunt Lucy, but apart from that it’s not like he goes out of his way to be kind, in any performative or extraverted way. He just is. It’s simple acts like helping a rubbish collector study for an exam, or inadvertently set up two shy neighbours with each other. It also looks so easy, so simple and natural to perform these acts of goodwill, that the filmmakers aren’t positioning them as pie-in-the-sky ideals, but a basic bare minimum for how you should treat other people.
The Paddington films basically have a flat arc. The protagonist is the one that doesn’t fundamentally change, and it’s the various people they impact that forms the dramatic leanings of the story. Classically, in the first one, it’s Hugh Bonneville’s Mr. Brown that learns this lesson, and he, along with the rest of the family, and seemingly everyone in the community, are fully initiated by the events of the sequel. Of course, usually the stories where a tight-knit community is waylaid by a malicious outside force is an easy gateway to othering and xenophobia, but it’s different in this case. The malicious force comes from inside.
And our villain here is a never-better Hugh Grant (come on, where was his Best Supporting Actor Oscar? I’m serious.) His Phoenix Buchanan is a funhouse mirror to every seeping ideal positioned as a fundamental reason for Brexit. He’s an aging narcissistic actor obsessed with a past gone by (that could never have been as good as he thought, otherwise he wouldn’t have ended up where he was). He thinks he’s washed-up, truly hard done by, yet lives in Windsor Gardens. Crucially, his agent ties his lack of recent mainstream “success” to his inability to work productively with others.
In fact, his main plot is to sell the pop-up book to fund a one-man comeback show, all about him. So – he’s using the money from a literal two-dimensional view of the idea of London, to forward a vision of celebration in going things alone.
And he would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for that meddling bear. Buchanan’s plan here relies in seeing this sense of community as weak and naïve, placing his hopes on it collapsing when the best of them gets brought down – allowing for someone with just the right amount of hollow charm as Buchanan to ride in and save them. But the exact opposite happens. They double down in their support for him. When Paddington essentially gets cancelled at the start of the second act – framed for stealing the pop-up book – no one believes it for a second, apart from those who want to believe it, like Peter Capaldi’s Mr. Curry, a cranky, bigoted man who, loudspeaker in hand, appoints himself as the spokesperson and authority figure for the street. He believes himself smarter than all of them because of his narrow-mindedness.
Luckily, the good people of Windsor Gardens see it as what it is, and they have no patience for it, as is beautifully illustrated in the last scene with Curry. The Browns are rushing to their car to go help Paddington after he breaks out of prison, but Curry stands in their way. He shouts “We don’t want him here!!” into the megaphone (because his opinion is the loudest, he thinks it is correct). Mr. Brown then delivers a wonderful speech defending the bear; “He looks for the good in people – and somehow, he finds it!” And to top it off, after their car stalls, the entirety of Windsor Gardens comes together to push it into action. It’s a beautiful image, and one that doesn’t wait for Mr. Curry to realise the error of his ways. His bigotry is irrelevant to the rest of the community. It just leaves him, alone, in the dust. They have nothing to prove to him. I really wish we felt the same.
Paddington may be slightly naïve at times, which gets him into trouble with less patient people, but the film positions this trust in people as a superpower, not a weakness. He transforms the prison he is sent to, making everyone inside a better, sweeter person – from chef Knuckles, to the hardboiled, huge T-Bone. If you’re kind and polite, the world will be right. But it’s just paying forward the love he’s received all his life – compared to the many people born into privilege and prosperity that seem unable/unwilling to wish that goodwill on anyone else.
Paddington 2 shows a vision of London and England that is both seemingly out-of-reach and easily attainable. It’s only a film, you can’t expect its charms to work on everyone – I think Nigel Farage has something deeply broken inside him that I’m not even really sure Paddington could fix, but it’s as good a calling card as any. The first step to a better world is actually imagining that one could exist. If you’re kind and polite, the world could be right. My country is not the country I thought it was; basically the one I saw as an impressionable 11-year old in our Opening Ceremony in 2012. You know, of rich history and universally-incredible figures. But it really could be.
And this film, in all its quiet sweetness, shows this, and shows a London that I choose to see when I walk the streets every day. The final scene with Aunt Lucy arriving in the city for the first time is so impossibly moving for hundreds of reasons, but by using the last few years as a viewfinder, it adds another. Because at the end of the day, you don’t truly show someone that you love where you live by sending them a pop-up book about it. You show your love by opening the door and letting them come inside for themselves.