Thursday 5 November 2020

Dead cat bounce: "A Christmas Gift from Bob"

Four years ago, the British film industry cobbled together A Street Cat Named Bob, a thin, televisual adaptation of James Bowen's bestselling memoir of his time on the London streets that was roughly 75% reaction shots of the cat credited with pulling Bowen through his experiences. (Bob played himself, much as Gordon Ramsay did in Love's Kitchen.) People went for it, proving we are both a nation of animal lovers and unimprovable suckers. We're now offered A Christmas Gift from Bob, a feature-length festive special of the same so-so show. Bob is back, making a posthumous appearance - in distinctly 2020 news, he was run over and killed this past June - while writer Garry Jenkins has come up with a fairly sketchy idea of a plot: returning from his book launch, Bowen (played once again by Luke Treadaway) encounters a homeless lad and spends 80 minutes regaling him with a Yuletide anecdote the first movie skipped over. Yet it's been wrapped up in more professional packaging than its predecessor cared to provide. Replacing Roger Spottiswoode in the director's seat, Hollywood veteran Charles Martin Smith adopts a wider-screen approach to shooting London, and adds heft to the depiction of life around the poverty line - probably as much heft as PG-rated festive fluff can bear without falling into tonal disrepair. Nevertheless, with their scrimp-and-save vision of shelters, food banks and electricity cards, the Bob diptych has actually been far more of a piece with Boris Johnson's let-them-eat-nothing Britain than the essentially fantastic Paddington films, the kind of reassurance good consciences conjure for themselves when their country is killing off benefit seekers and plotting to sink refugees in the Channel.

Consolidating Jenkins' "stronger together" message, Smith works nicely with his ensemble, building up the non-man/cat relationships: Anna Wilson-Jones has been drafted in as a Nigella-like TV chef who steps up to assist Bowen, Bob and the film over the inevitably snowy finish line, and there's fun nefariousness from Tim Plester in the Disney-originated role of grudge-bearing animal welfare officer attempting to separate human hero from feline helpmate. (Hiss.) Some more good news to report from the acting front: Treadaway, here promoted to executive-producer status, seems to have understood that Bob may be the cat that's laid the golden egg as far as his career goes. We still have to endure his vocal stylings, alas - as you may or may not recall, Bowen busked to help get himself off the streets - and the character is never far from a homily that doubtless warmed the cockles on the page but sounds awkward when spoken aloud in an Aussie accent. Yet we're now watching an actor who's persuaded himself he really is the best man for this role, and no longer the third or fourth choice he may have been first time around. He commits to his choices, shambling onto the film's literary scene a bit grubby and underslept, as though his Bowen could backslide at any moment, and it's only the cat perched Jiminy Cricket-like on his shoulder that is keeping him on the straight and narrow. Cheap and cheerful, but fuzzily sincere - and if you're in the market for cutaways to Bob (R.I.P.) looking mildly confused or annoyed while wearing a Santa hat, then you're very definitely in the right place.

A Christmas Gift from Bob opens in selected Scottish and Welsh cinemas and will be available to stream from tomorrow; the DVD follows on November 30.

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