Sundance 2020 Review: COME AWAY Disappoints on Almost Every Level
Angelina Jolie, David Oyelowo, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Michael Caine star in an adventure directed by Brenda Chapman.
A misfire by any other name is still a misfire and Brenda Chapman’s (Brave, The Prince of Egypt) live-action debut, Come Away, a family-oriented fantasy-drama, unfortunately, qualifies as a misfire.
All the elements were there for artistic or critical success even before production began on Come Away. Aside from Chapman, a long-time animator and co-director of Pixar’s Academy Award-winning Brave, Come Away includes A-listers in Angelina Jolie and David Oyelowo, a strong supporting cast (Michael Caine, Derek Jacobi, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in stealth cameos), classic source material, J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, beloved by generations of readers and movie fans, and a potentially provocative, promising premise (a married, interracial couple and their biracial children in Victorian-Era England). Come Away somehow manages to squander every positive, throwing away any inadvertent goodwill in the process.
When we first meet Peter (Jordan A. Nash) and Alice (Keira Chansa) Littleton as preteens, they’re part of a well-integrated, free-flowing sibling trio with their older brother, David (Reece Yates). The three siblings live a near idyllic existence with their parents, Rose (Angelina Jolie) and Jack (David Oyelowo), in a comfortably sized cottage outside London.
While Peter, Alice, and David spend seemingly endless days allowing indulging their inner storytellers (Peter, especially), a dark cloud appears one day in the form of Eleanor Morrow (Anna Chancellor), Rose’s older, aristocratic sister. Childless herself – her lack of children apparently curdling her worldview, Eleanor turns into Come Away’s equivalent of a hissable, unrootworthy villain – Eleanor strong-arms the borderline impoverished Rose and Jack into allowing her to control David’s education, right up until David, the current and future holder of Most Favored Nephew or Niece (MFNoF) status, abruptly, if predictably, exits Comes Away via a semi-foreseeable tragedy. (Peter and Alice have plot armor; David doesn’t.)
Post-tragedy, the Littleton family reacts in markedly different, conflicting, discordant ways. Rather than pulling themselves together as a family, they break apart, atomized by their collective loss.
Rose retreats into herself, relying on an alcohol to numb her anguished grief; Jack returns to his old ways as a gambler; Peter, partially blaming himself for his brother’s loss while keenly aware of David’s elevated status in their immediate world, decides to make amends in his own limited way; and Alice, also torn and worn down by grief, withdraws into a Lewis Carroll-inspired fantasy world until Eleanor taps her for MFNoF status, awakening Alice’s latent class snobbery in the process.
Jack’s descent into a figurative and literal underworld forces him to confront his troubled past, including an old foe, Captain James (David Gyasi), and an old associate, Hatter Roger (Clarke Peters), Unsurprisingly enough, Captain Jack and Hatter Roger mirror characters from Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, respectively.
Despite Chapman’s relative newness to directing live-action, she elicits uniformly strong, believable performances from her young, preteen cast. (Angelina Jolie and David Oyelowo likely needed little, if any, direction.) Individually and collectively, they’re asked to do a great deal of emoting (e.g., the five stages of grief, including denial, anger, bargaining, depression and ultimately acceptance). With one or two exceptions, they manage to convey the emotional demands of Goodhill’s screenplay with nearly pitch-perfect delivery. It’s a big ask of any actor, let alone a preteen performer.
Any number of films have suffered due to poor casting, poor direction, or sometimes both. As David, Reece Yates spends minimal time onscreen, but leaves a considerable impression or trace, making the grief and sorrow experienced by his family, while Jordan A. Nash and Keira Chansa impressively carry Come Away’s emotional burden once David permanently departs the film.
For a film ostensibly aimed at families of all ages, Come Away hits hard emotionally, sometimes too hard, especially given the subject matter (the loss of a son/brother) and Chapman and Goodhill’s decision to juxtapose elements of fantasy and reality to potentially confusing effect. Far more egregious, however, was the decision to deliberately erase Victorian-era racism entirely from the film.
While Chapman, Goodhill, and the film’s producers had no problem foregrounding Come Away’s class-centered themes, they balked at the idea of addressing, however tangentially or marginally, Jack and Rose’s relationship or their children’s problematic status in a Victorian England rife with exploitative, imperialist, colonialist attitudes, instead choosing to willfully ignore the issues of systemic and institutional racism completely. Given Chapman and Goodhill’s clear-cut decision to treat class explicitly as both issue and obstacle in Come Away (Rose comes from the upper classes while Jack most definitely doesn’t), it’s nothing less than cowardly to ignore race and racism in Victorian England.