By Chris Hughes (Manchester, England)
Fred Rogers delighted generations of American youngsters with his homespun simplistic charm, his series Mister Rogers Neighborhood running from 1968- 2001. A 1998 Esquire piece about the children’s TV legend is the inspiration for Marielle Heller’s, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. The article, Can You Say… Hero? is thought to say as much about its author, Tom Junod as it does of its subject matter.
US audiences are of course able to bring the familiarity which for them bred affection for Rogers to this movie. To an uninitiated Brit like myself the first impression of him is of a slightly strange individual. In fact, one could be forgiven for initially suspecting this beacon of morality may have a dark side. That would seem to be the expectation of journalist Lloyd Vogel (Tom Junod’s fictional counterpart), played by Matthew Rhys, tasked with interviewing the small screen icon. Cynical, world weary and at a point of personal crisis he has become the interviewer that interviewees seek to avoid. Fred however appears to have some form of agenda in enthusiastically agreeing to be questioned by him. Vogel sees Rogers as too good to be true and is openly frustrated by what he believes to be nothing more than a facade. Rogers senses a troubled soul in need of redemption.
In order to prevent cinemagoers from sniggering into their popcorn it would take an actor of immense integrity to convincingly play Fred Rogers. With the passing of James Stewart there is only one name which presents itself and it is of course Tom Hanks. Reference to archive recordings of Rogers will verify the accuracy of his superb interpretation of the man himself. It’s a detailed study which comes with all the humanity Hanks always brings to the screen. This is best exemplified in a scene in a restaurant in which Rogers persuades Vogel to take a silent minute to celebrate those who have loved him. That this is not risible is a tribute to Hanks’ credibility and Marielle Heller’s brave direction in permitting the silence which extends beyond sixty seconds. It’s a beautiful and powerful moment.
Avoidance of overt sentimentality must have been a key challenge for Heller in bringing this story to the screen. Her last film, the masterly Can You Ever Forgive Me? was not so trying in that respect with its true story of a literary forger. Her triumph in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is to effectively show, with limited schmaltz, that it is possible for a lost soul to be rescued by kindness.
If there are quibbles, the expedient resolution of the problems in Vogel’s personal life spring to mind. Matthew Rhys compensates for this with a textured performance which is of a complexity that isn’t always reflected in the script. The salvation of his character is plausible in his hands.
Ignorance of Rogers proves not to be detrimental to appreciation of this movie. It actually rewards as it allows audiences unaware of Fred to see him from Vogel’s perspective and share his scepticism. Marielle Heller’s touching film leads ultimately to rejection of that scepticism and to a belief that someone who seems innately good can be exactly that.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is available now on DVD, Blu-ray and via selected streaming services.
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