A friend lent me the DVD of the 2018 adaptation of Peter Rabbit this week, and, as has become the custom in these colder winter months, I sat down with the family to watch it on Sunday afternoon. Not knowing anything about the style of the film except that it is, obviously based on the cute, mischievous character created by Beatrix Potter, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. And boy, was I surprised by it!
As a piece of cinema, it feels like two different films shoved together to become one. On the one side, it’s a zany, slapstick, slightly vicious comedy about a family of rabbits who employ terror tactics to ensure they can keep eating fruit and veg from Mr McGregor’s garden. On the other, it’s a cute romance between uptight, repressed, affection starved Thomas McGregor and his sweet, compassionate, artistic neighbour Bea. If I was eight years old, I’d probably love the antics of the rabbits (even though pelting someone with blackberries when they’re allergic to them, and electrocuting them out of their own house could barely be described as antics, more a kind of furry terrorism), but as an adult I just had the urge to do a Glenn Close and cook them.
On the positive side, Domhnall Gleeson and Rose Byrne are utterly adorable as Thomas and Bea, and I found myself getting very invested in the outcome of their relationship. He’s a toy shop manager with abandonment issues and she’s an artist with, well, painting issues, and they discover each other so beautifully. As Thomas starts to unwind, to appreciate this new life that he has inherited, and Bea shows him that there is more to life than order, arrangement and control over his environment, they fall in love. Every scene they were in together, they stole, and the achingly romantic ‘apology’ demonstration in the conservatory had me all a-flutter. I would say, actually, that it’s a more loaded moment than their actual kiss, but then I am a lover of romance!
These two ideas – militant, delinquent rabbits and awkwardly adorable humans aren’t mutually compatible on a number of levels. What should be cute somehow turns vicious, and although I loved Peter’s ‘apology’ scenes to his siblings and then to Bea, I couldn’t quite forgive him for the nastiness of his actions. I understand the motivations – he’s lost both parents and has a vendetta against McGregor senior for putting his dad in a pie, and on some level he can be interpreted as a jealous child, trying to sabotage a parent’s new relationship (he arguably sees Bea as a maternal figure). But there’s something that just doesn’t sit right with a lot of the action scenes (barring the travel montage at the end, which was great fun). I was left thinking that, actually, I’d have watched a whole film about Bea and Thomas, without the rabbits, and I’d probably have liked it more. Of course, as I said, I’m not really the target audience!
Because of this, the elements of character development I really wanted to see were only alluded to, rather than explored fully. Take Thomas, for example. He’s coiled so tightly at the beginning of the film that anything that throws him out of his routine sends him into meltdown. We find out later on, when he’s talking to Bea on the riverbank, that he lost both parents, and was brought up in care. If this had been a different film, we’d have had more exploration, more tension here. There are hints that he’s been starved of affection scattered through the film – his voluptuously ecstatic, cat-like appreciation of Bea towelling his hair dry after they are caught in the rainstorm, when he throws himself down on the riverbank during a picnic with Bea, and, as I’ve mentioned before, the ‘apology’ moment in the conservatory when Bea brings her forehead to his to demonstrate why rabbits do it better, complete with his awkward, but enthusiastic response, culminating in a half smile.
As some commentators have said, Gleeson walks a tightrope in this film between antagonist and romantic lead, and he does it very well, considering the lack of character development. If this had been a different film, Thomas McGregor would have had even more depth, but as it is, Gleeson executes what he is given perfectly, and beautifully.
Similarly, Byrne in her role as the gentle and saccharine Bea emits sweetness and light, tinged with the slightest of edges (although if a huge tree had crashed on my house, and my love interest had apparently been responsible for that, I’d have been a whole lot more angry! Again though, different film…). She tries to give Thomas the love and emotional rehabilitation he so badly craves, even though she is, at the very least, unobservant. I mean, who’s not going to notice being stalked at every turn by a family of clothes wearing bunnies?! And as for the whole the-rabbits-can-talk issue…
So, all in all, there were lots of things to love about this film, although most of them were of the two footed rather than four legged variety. I’m hoping for a sequel, but only because I want to see Thomas and Bea having their happily ever after, and celebrating their wedding with not a cake, but a rabbit pie.