Marielle Heller is quietly crafting herself a reputation as an actor’s director par excellence. Her last film, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, saw Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy both nominated for Oscars. Now she has done it again, with Tom Hanks winning his first Academy Award nod in almost twenty years for A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood.
Inspired by Tom Junod’s article for Esquire, ‘Can You Say…Hero’, it’s the story of a world-weary journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), whose latest assignment is to interview Fred Rogers (Hanks). For those that don’t know, Rogers was the beloved children’s television entertainer whose show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was beamed into American homes for 33 years. The disarming Mr. Rogers tackled a range of subjects, even death, in a manner that never spoke down to children.
Last year, Rogers, who died in 2003, was the subject of the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbour? which became a massive $22 million-grossing hit in the US, proof of his enduring appeal. Heller’s film, scripted by Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue, isn’t a biopic of Rogers per se. Rather, he’s a supporting character in Vogel’s narrative, a man who is estranged from his dying father (Chris Cooper) and certainly skeptical of the idea that Rogers can be so fundamentally nice.
Of course, his repeated encounters with Rogers erase some of that cynicism, but never in a mawkish way. Again, Heller is a director of great subtlety and she gently allows Hanks’ performance to pervade the story. Hanks, well worth his Oscar nod, is superb as Rogers, truly capturing the man’s off-screen essence as well his neatly bringing to life his TV persona (in truth, there doesn’t seem much difference between the two).
While the film starts strangely, with Rogers talking to his audience about Vogel as if he’s his latest subject, it gradually makes its intentions clear. This was never meant to be a straightfoward bio, but an examination of Rogers’ effect on one man’s psychology – and by inference, his effect on generations of children. For anyone who had ever lost a parent, the film will be particularly moving, with Chris Cooper’s devastating performance. With Matthew Rhys also on fine form, this will leave you feel humbled and wholesome.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood opens on 31 January. For more details, visit here.