It’s Christmas 2020, and due to circumstances beyond our control, most of us are facing up to seeing our friends and family on the same screens we’ve been looking at all year. The annual glut of blockbuster family entertainment and awards-friendly movies hasn’t appeared, and there’s a lack of product to offer festive cheer. Brenda Chapman, of Pixar’s Brave fame, is the driving force behind fantasy drama Come Away, which screened at Sundance back in January when masks, vaccines and self-isolation were science-fiction. The film’s release has wisely been held back, and now Come Away emerges as one of the few family offerings of a threadbare festive season.
And first impressions are not great. Come Away riffs on the genesis of JM Barrie’s and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, both routes already well travelled in Finding Neverland and 1985’s Dreamchild. There’s some big star names in Angelina Jolie, Michael Caine and David Oyelowo, but you’d expect them to take second place to lashings of fairy-based CGI and the mechanical magic of a Harry Potter-scenario. A jolly, glitzy pantomime is what you’d expect, and yet Come Away is rather different to what you might imagine, and has drawn a mixed press as a result.
Rose and Jack (Jolie and Oyelowo) are a married couple in Victorian Britain, with three inquisitive kids under their spell. Jack has gambling debts, and his living is made creating antique ships-in-bottles as playthings for the rich. Rose fears that their social status is undermined, not least by her sister Eleanor (Anna Chancellor) who seeks to take her girl away from her. Of course, one thing that movies have taught us is that you can’t take kids from Angelina Jolie without a struggle, but the accidental death of their eldest provides an opportunity for the vultures surrounding the family to strike…
Come Away focuses on the inner lives of the family children, but is sparing with the CGI and more interested in how that dream-world is at odds with an often grim reality; Jack loses a hand at one point, and smaller kids may well be as upset as I was. But Come Away skews toward intelligent teens, who will understand the threat to childhood that’s depicted here via racism and class distinction, and also understand that the fairies will not come to the rescue; this is a subtle story of the redemption possible via imagination, and it works on these terms.
Perhaps the combination of a spiky narrative, female film-makers (Kate Goodhill is on script duties), a multi-racial cast and a deliberately sensitive attitude were too much for fuddy-duddy critics to bear, but Come Away will find admirers who are down with the literary feel a la Finding Neverland. It’s got the stars and the subject to pull an audience in to a festive movie, and even if the climax isn’t the all-singing, all-dancing affair that some would prefer, Come Away’s smart, serious-minded brand of fantasy is a welcome addition to the 2020 festive movie schedule.
Signature Entertainment presents Come Away in UK Cinemas from 18th December