“Marvellous” is based on the true story of Neil Baldwin. Baldwin was diagnosed with “learning difficulties” at school, but didn’t allow the label to discourage him from achieving as much in life as his heart desired. We meet Neil working as Nello the clown in the circus. He goes on to get a regular role at Keele University, advising and helping students, and is employed by his beloved football team, Stoke City. Along the way, his mother worries profusely whether he will be able to look after himself after she dies.
Before I begin, I guess I better put in a mild caveat. A TV film like “Marvellous” is probably not going to get the most unbiased of reviews from me. It focuses on the life of someone who I never met, but nevertheless I know plenty of people who do know him. This includes the great Norman Barrett, a dear friend of my family, who features in a brief cameo at the film’s conclusion and is also mentioned a few times, including his MBE status. These are all anachronistic, but that takes nothing away from the nature of the film. Norman’s budgies are also a plot point. For the most part, the film shows circus in a good light, which is a refreshing change. Only the ringmaster of the first circus is presented as something of a villain. This is becoming a bit of a cliché now along with the assumption that the ringmaster is traditionally the owner of the show. Nevertheless, many of my circus friends and family were smiling when the film won the Best Single Drama category of the 2015 BAFTAs.
“Marvellous” does not pretend to be a historically accurate biopic and the style of composition, including characters breaking the fourth wall to consult the real-life personalities, are slightly reminiscent of Michael Winterbottom and Frank Cottrell’s Boyce’s “24 Hour Party People”. The result is an interesting hybrid drama that further proves the burgeoning strengths of television in recent times.
The sales blurb declares it to be part biopic, part fantasy and part musical. If this is the case, then these parts are not evenly distributed. The biopic description is the prevailing aspect to the point where the fantasy might be interpreted as forgivable artistic interpretation and the musical part – consisting entirely of Fenton Choir –comes across more as a soundtrack rather than an integral part of the drama. The film is all the better for this ratio. This is a tribute and celebration of the unique character of Neil Baldwin, playfully realizing his dreams in an exaggerated fashion. Demonstrating a lack of pretentiousness and a comfortable sense of self-awareness, the film even has the real Neil Baldwin being asked by Toby Jones whether or not an event occurred like it is depicted in the film. Baldwin replies with a flat “no”.
The film is fervently non-judgemental without being ridiculously positive. The locations are nearly always drab, often showing examples of bad weather or uninspiring building interiors. Baldwin’s escapades are described as unique techniques for blagging your way into various dream experiences. Along the way he is met with unkindness that Neil isn’t oblivious to, but he shrugs off as “banter”. Baldwin’s “learning difficulties” are never really defined and the viewer isn’t prompted to be curious. This is dealt with in a non-patronizing way. Baldwin and his mother just simply ignore the frustrated efforts of others to get them to discuss his “condition”, and everyone cannot help but be carried along by the lead character’s confidence.
Critics of “Marvellous” have rightly noticed that Julian Farino took on a tall order with true style. A lesser director could have easily descended into sentimental schmaltz or ironic irreverence. Do not expect this to be another “Forrest Gump” or “Rain Man”. Don’t expect “Derek” either for that matter. The film portrays Neil Baldwin in an honest light. This includes the long suffering worries of his mother, portrayed by Gemma Jones in a performance that deservedly earned her a best-supporting actress BAFTA, and the clergy that are obliged to lend their charitable hand of support. In this respect, “Marvellous” is as much a tribute to the spirit of collective humanity as it is to the positive attitude of its lead protagonist. It is significant that Baldwin’s aspirations are not achieved just because he is doggedly determined and won’t give up on his dreams, but also because of the many people who seem to find themselves helping him.
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