2020 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: Neverland and Wonderland come together in “Come Away,” the new film from Brenda Chapman.
Angelina Jolie and David Oyelowo are Rose and Jack Littleton, a happy couple raising their three adventurous children outside of London. David (Reece Yates), Peter (Jordan A. Nash), and Alice (Keira Chansa) are happy in their idyllic country home. They spend their days fighting off pirates and looking for treasure. But their perfect life is threatened when Aunt Eleanor (Anna Chancellor) announces she is sending David away to boarding school. And their perfect life crumbles soon after, when tragedy strikes.
“Come Away” opens with a perfect blend of real life and the sprinkles of children’s imaginings. David, Peter, and Alice run through the woods, their sticks turning to bows and arrows. A row boat becoming a pirate ship. A pile of leaves, precious piles of gold. It is wonderful and magical, and lulls the viewer into what will surely be a very pleasant journey.
But the magic doesn’t last long. Once the aforementioned tragedy occurs, “Come Away” loses its way. Much like the Littleton family, the film itself isn’t sure where to go or what to do in the wake of loss. The story begins to feel jumbled, disorganized, and imbalanced. Every character starts to make choices that don’t fit, that don’t make sense. Yes, that is often how grief works, but in this case, the result is a mishmash of scenes that don’t ever amount to anything. Some moments feel shoehorned in for the sake of finding reasons to reference the stories of Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland.
The performances are sufficient, not exceptional. Oyelowo and Jolie make for an intriguing pair, but their talents are not given room to breathe. They are very happy and then very sad and there’s little in between. Rose and Jack are limited in their development as people, too. There are kernels of their individual histories and we are led to believe those histories matter. And to some extent, Jack’s past is important and catches up with him. But the journey to get there in insufficient and everything afterward feels like a let down.
The child stars all have a lot of promise. Their characters do some illogical things, but they avoid the pitfalls of irritating performances. Watching them play together, it’s easy to get caught up in their imaginations. Anna Chancellor is almost interesting as the rich and childless aunt who wants her version of what’s best for the children. She and Chansa share a scene together that is actually quite moving, as aunt and niece bond over tea.
The rest of the cast features an almost blink-and-you’ll-miss-them collection of supporters that includes Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the grown up Alice telling her childhood story. David Gyasi and Clarke Peters share a scene with Oyelowo that, with a better script, could have glittered like the shiny trinkets in their shop. Michael Caine, David Jacobi, and Roger Ashton-Griffiths all show up in very minor roles.
“Come Away” is a pretty movie. The house and the woods and the creek that runs nearby are enviable. Who wouldn’t want to run through that lush and green forest, hunting for pirate treasure? Unfortunately, there’s not enough going beneath the surface to keep the story moving. It screened at Sundance as part of the Kids program, but children will likely be bored within the first fifteen minutes.