[potential spoiler warning: this turned into one of my rare reviews where I talk a lot about the plot…] There have been many movies made about relationships between older men and younger girls - going way back to the French Sundays & Cybele (and I'm sure even further back), through Digging to China, The Professional, to Lawn Dogs and of course the two adaptations of Lolita - and they've rarely been unworthy of note, so I've been meaning to watch this one - ostensibly about an elderly British man who befriends a little girl, ultimately to the suspicion of the neighbourhood - ever since I first heard about it. This is a subject that's never not worth revisiting - because it's a problem that not only won't go away but seems to get ever worse. As far as I'm aware this is the first of these kinds of movies to be set in modern Britain, with positive intentions toward the subject matter - and that in itself for now actually makes it more pressing than any of the other titles previously mentioned.
The movie doesn't rush into its story at all, feeling more like Gran Torino or, closer to home, Harry Brown, as it starts than any of those more romantic, poetic movies. Bob Hoskins plays what initially amounts to a grumpy old man who, as the movie opens, sees his wife die as an ambulance is too busy dealing with drunks in the city. Hoodies and youths seem to be on every corner and Hoskins doesn't hold back from telling them what he thinks of their loitering, littering, etc. He keeps racing pigeons and it's while he's tending to them that 8 year old Florrie runs into his back garden.
It's impressive how the movie builds to its drama from here. Nobody bats an eye at first at this old man looking after a little girl who only recently moved into the neighbourhood for an hour or two. Her mother actually directly invokes the P-word on their first meeting, joking, after he objects to being left with her ("I don't know what to do with kids!" etc), "Oh come on, you're not a peedie, are ya?" In this way the movie sort of serves as a microcosm of a much longer timescale, with this initial phase going back to the early 90s or even late 80s when people did trust more this way. I hope this doesn't make me sound like I have a bleak view of the world - I'm sure there are still communities where every stranger (particularly of the male persuasion) isn't regarded with suspicion, but they're certainly few and far between… the picture painted later in the movie, something resembling Salem in the 1600s, feels much more familiar…
As Hoskins' character lets himself go hygienically, devoid of wife (I won't go off on one about this typically male portrayal; it's believable in this case), another new neighbour, a French woman, begins to insinuate herself into his life, bringing him home-cooked food and company but really just desperate for the company herself. Hoskins befriends one of the neighbourhood teenagers, too, seeing a spark of humanity in the boy that he can nurture if only he can keep him away from his drunken friends. Soon his whole house and garden is buzzing with these disparate characters, a picture of community in action, prompting bewilderment from Hoskins estranged son - who knows him only as the grumpy recluse we first saw - when he pops home to collect the last of his things (wanting nothing more to do with his grumpy dad since mother died).
You can probably guess what happens from here - such happiness never holding up when strangers and children are involved. The P word begins to be uttered less jokingly and people start to believe what even characters on the sidelines imply. It's finally when Florrie herself asks her mother what that word means, having heard it all over the shop, that even this rare, smart, parent - suddenly stricken with that awful fear face we see wherever there are mothers, children, and strange men - says, "I think I've been a very silly mummy…" I don't think I've seen the power that word has in today's society represented so perfectly as it is here. I didn't mention Salem before to be funny - it does seem that once the P word is used to describe an already even slightly suspicious person it has as little chance of being taken back today as an accusation of witchcraft back then. Once the word is spray-painted on the front of Hoskins' house, once the pack mentality of the neighbourhood sees it, it's just so many dominoes waiting to fall…
The final act of the movie is as admirable as it is awkward. It impressively doesn't go down some of the more obvious paths, say, a TV movie with the same subject matter might go. One of the friends of the boy Hoskins befriends plants what we can only assume is child pornography on his computer and tips the police off about it. I don't know how accurate the scene of his arrest is as far as what would actually happen in the same situation in real life, but they actually let him go to the pub while they search the house… they take the computer away, and, seeing when the material was downloaded combined with the information that Hoskins was in France with his pigeons at that time, don't even make the slightest suggestion that he had anything to do with it. Another scene has them interview the rowdy mother of Florrie's best friend. She has that dramatic way with language implying all manner of untruths about Hoskins but using those words that one usually sees have the police arrest the first creepy looking man they see, but they flatly tell her, "sorry, but that doesn't give us anything to go on…"
There is one moment towards the end which is (if you'll pardon the spoiler-ish pun) so ballsy and frankly absurd that it almost threatens to take down the movie entirely. It relates to the French neighbour who Hoskins ultimately falls in love with, and I'll say no more than that. It is startling how an initially wtf reveal in this storyline actually turns into something quite wonderful (not to mention garnering one of the movie's biggest laughs - yes, bizarrely, there are laughs in this movie… an awkward, yet again admirable, number and variety of them…) as it resolves itself. As I said, the bare bones of this story - the man/little girl relationship - has been done many times and it's to this movie's credit how much flavour it adds, with bursts of French music, the pigeon keeping, and this random little storyline.
I was surprised to find mostly positive reviews among the few I could find when I searched after the credits rolled on this one. It's a subject matter most people have firmly made up their minds about and the approach here is frequently so awkward it's easy to label as plain ridiculous - most particularly in that wtf reveal of the French neighbour's subplot. There are many lovely good characters with great actors behind them but the bad characters tend to be sort of embarrassingly two dimensional - hoodies and chavs plain and true. But the movie has some seriously good intentions that I can't ignore because they're something I care deeply about. There is a massive problem when it comes to friendships between adults and children that is not talked about nearly enough and it ruins lives constantly and increasingly. This movie like so many doesn't really offer a solution but it does show perfectly exactly how and where the misunderstandings happen… I recommend it completely.