TV drama biopics have boomed recently. You get the chance to let yourselves into the lives of personalities you’ve never heard of. Most of them are traditional subjects – political activists, scientists, sportsmen, etc. Rarely do we see filmmakers sidestep the standard biopic themes. Julian Farino’s Marvellous (2014) tells the story of one such unique individual Neil Baldwin. His simple deeds restore our faith in the human spirit. The film’s poster shows actor Toby Jones holding a football and wearing some professional English football club’s jersey. It made me think it’s a biopic of a famous football club’s manager, coach or a former player. It’s none of that. Marvellous is the tale of a benign man, who became a legend in his community for his simplistic view of life.
Based on a Guardian article, Peter Bowker’s script comes off like watching through a heart-warming scrap book. It’s sentimental, but so engaging it had me smiling for most part of it. Marvellous opens with a fantastic musical sequence of a choir gathered to sing Stoke City theme. As the song plays in the background, the film briefly illustrates Neil’s childhood. The protagonist seems to have learning difficulties. The angry exchange Neil’s devout mum has with his teacher (conversations aren’t audible) confirm the fact.
A typical biopic would have opened with a shot explaining what’s wrong with Neil and how far he is in the autistic spectrum. But, after the cheery song, the script jumps to Neil working as a clown, on a circus touring around Scotland. (Neil later claims, “I’m a registered clown”). One day, he gets fired and hitchhikes his way back to home to Stoke City. His old mother Mary (Gemma Jones) endlessly worries about her son and wonders how Neil would keep himself busy after her death.
Neil comforts his mother to not worry, saying he has a job waiting for him at Keele University. When she asks when they offered a job to him, he replies, “Tomorrow.” Next day, he goes over to the university and starts greeting freshers on campus. Soon, he becomes a regular part of the university, attending lectures and talking with students. He is neither an employee nor has he signed up for any courses (an unofficial student liaison officer). The aim is to keep himself busy.
When the local pastor asks Neil how he is doing, he replies “I am busy. I’m behind on my bird-watching, and I’m writing an extra verse for the Lord’s Prayer.” Neil has a lot of friends – from football players, referees to archbishops, and politicians. He is also a devotee of Stoke City Football Club and hangs around the stadium to chat with the club’s new manager Lou Macari (Tony Curran). The genial manager likes Neil and asks him to be the kit man.
While, many don’t think highly of Neil’s gate-crashing quality and simplistic views, Macari realizes how much he can learn from this devoted fan. And thus, Nello became a beloved member of the club. When Macari asks “How do you stay so positive,” Neil answers without thinking much,”I’ve always wanted to be happy so I decided to be.” Mother Mary’s worries are warranted too as the ever enthusiastic Neil isn’t able to fully take care of himself. She warns him that she won’t be around one day.
Peter Bowker’s script is unlike Hollywood’s schmaltzy biopic scripts. Neil has every quality of the beloved fictional character Forrest Gump. His story could have been made larger-than-life by giving it the ‘Gump’ treatment. But, Bowker never reduces Baldwin’s life into some entertaining, cinematic character. The writer shows enough curiosity about how Neil Baldwin got away in life with what he did.
Farino embellishes the nuanced writing with his storytelling skills. In the hands of another filmmaker or writer, Marvellous would have been a tale of a man with learning difficulties who eventually becomes famous enough. It would have used the man’s learning difficulties as a trait, to uplift the mood of ‘normal’ people. It’s an approach in cinema to showcase ‘differently abled’ individuals as ‘disabled,’ only to use them as tools to inspire ordinary people. Here, learning difficulty isn’t Baldwin’s defining attribute. The script tells what all Mr. Baldwin is capable of doing.
Farino adds nice, colorful title cards at the start of each of Baldwin’s hitchhiking journey, lending it a scrapbook feel. Nello gatecrashes Parliament, gets himself invited to lunch with a top politician in the House of Commons, accompanies a crew of umpires (in the launch boat) on the boat race, gets selected to play for Stoke in testimonial game, and even gets his own football club.
Bowker, Farino are more interested in showing us how joyous it is to be Neil than concoct a grand message out of his life. They address what’s primary to Neil’s thumping success in life: his un-self-conscious nature. While such human nature is unbelievable, the script includes real Neil sitting alongside reel Neil asking if this is how things happened or this is how he felt. It’s a very playful, fourth-wall breaking idea, which reveals the sheer force of Neil’s shiny personality.
When a league player mocks Neil in the dressing room, Toby Jones asks the real Neil, “Did you feel he was picking on you because of your difficulties?” “What difficulties?” shoots back the smiling Neil.
If Marvellous makes you feel good or uplifts your mood, it’s not because of some sugary narrative tactics. At one point, in the testimonial game when Nello miraculously scores a goal for his team and beckons to the crowd, the shot cuts away to Toby Jones asking Neil “Did it really happen like that?” Neil says: “No.” The film, for most part, leaves out unnecessary dramatic tactics, which makes his life fascinating. There may be small elements of drama. But that doesn’t reduce his life to some fancy urban myth.
The script has an uneven, episodic feel to it. At the same time, it’s admirable that the writer hasn’t contrived any conflicts, for the sake of coherence.
Neil’s relationship with his mother provides an opportunity to increase the dramatic quotient. The possibility of death (of the mother) could’ve played havoc on Toby’s life. How he plays the expected, lamentable moment is truly heartbreaking. He doesn’t take the news of her death well. The reality sinks in much later when he’s all by himself. The bottom of his lip shakes and he breaks into a sob.
If Bowker and Farino’s craft plays a role in laying the foundation for this elegant work, Toby Jones elevates the drama through his convincing and humane portrayal of Neil Baldwin. It is his most delightful performance. Rarely do we come across a personality played onscreen, whose lack of hidden depths keep fascinating us. I also liked the brilliant musical interludes and the pleasing cameos of Lou Macari and Gary Lineker.
If you’re done with your regular dose of mindless violence and endless cynicism, give Marvellous a chance.
By Arun Kumar