We Bought a Zoo
A widowed father played by Matt Damon moves to the South Californian country and purchases a zoo with his family
On Film4: 6 Sep 6:25PM
Adaptation of DH Lawrence's coming-of-age drama, in which Paul Morel struggles to escape the limits of his coal-mining town and his mother's suffocating love. Directed by Jack Cardiff, with stunning, Oscar-winning cinematography
"I shan't get married so long as I have you," Paul (Stockwell) tells his mother early in this film, flagging up the slightly creepy co-dependence that lends a real fascination to this otherwise standard story of a confused, artistic boy on the verge of adulthood.
Gertrude Morel (Hiller) is unhappily married to alcoholic coal-miner Walter (Howard), and, with one son away from home and the other following his father down the pits, focuses all her love and hope on Paul. He has to decide whether to pursue a career as a painter in London or stay with his mother, whilst trying to define himself through affairs with two very different women - sweet, chaste Miriam and women's libber and divorcee Clara Dawes.
This is a beautiful, painterly film, with a real sense of place, depicting a cramped, dark town in the shadow of wooded hills and creaking mineshafts. In one particularly stunning sequence, Paul and Miriam are discussing their future beside a lake when it begins to silently shiver - a close-up of its shuddering surface alerting us to a mining accident that has taken his brother's life, and will alter Paul's plans, with far more power than an obvious explosion.
Trevor Howard puts in a fantastic performance as the miner who feels his family has turned against him: thick with dirt, tearing into his sandwiches with an animal appetite, deeply hurt that someone "sitting on his bottom all week in an office" commands more respect in his own home than he does. Wendy Hiller is also excellent, winning our sympathy at first as a sensitive woman crushed by working-class life, and then slowly revealing herself as poisonous.
The film's only real flaw is in the character of Paul, who needs to make us care about his struggle, yet too often seems cocky and pretentious ("I think a crow is religious"), and isn't helped by Stockwell's rather shrill performance. When Paul persuades Miriam to have sex with him against her obvious wishes, only to dump her straight afterwards because he feels "like a criminal," it is an act of nastiness rather difficult for a modern audience to forgive.
An attractive, thoughtful adaptation of a difficult novel. Lawrence's sexual politics may have dated badly, but the cinematography and acting still exude quality.
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