I loved Paddington 2. So I’m going to pay it tribute in the only way I know how: by writing pseudo-academic criticism about it. Blame my Victorian lit master’s for this one.
‘Exit bear, pursued by an actor’: Antitheatricality in Paddington 2
‘Actors are the most evil, devious people on the planet. They lie for a living.’ Mrs Bird, Paddington 2
In Victorian sensation fiction, the villain is usually an actor (more precisely, actress; the gender dynamic is important). In Lady Audley’s Secret (1861-62) by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, the lawyer turned amateur detective, Robert Audley, describes his aunt (who does not act professionally but is performing the part of a perfect wife) as ‘an actress’, conflating it with ‘an arch-trickster…an all-accomplished deceiver’. In Braddon’s later novel, Hostages to Fortune (1874-75), the captivating actress Myra Brandreth threatens the domestic idyll of novelist Herman Westray and his religious and naïve wife Editha. Reading such novels, it is easy to locate the roots of the consensus that the Victorians were antitheatrical. Nina Auerbach argues, ‘Reverent Victorians shunned theatricality as the ultimate, deceitful mobility’, which ‘connotes not only lies, but a fluidity of character that decomposes the uniform integrity of the self’ (Private Theatricals: The Lives of the Victorians).
In the patchwork of cultural references that make up Paddington 2, it is difficult to tell when exactly the film is set. But it owes quite a lot to the Victorians, from the panopticon prison design to the portrayal of the actor and villain of the film Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant). Phoenix is so determined to find the treasure to get his one-man show back on the West End that he perjures himself in court and allows an innocent bear to go to prison. Lies. In his attic, surrounded by mannequins wearing the costumes of the characters that make up his show, he plots. They are not just parts but multiple selves: moping Hamlet, timid Macbeth, the detective Poirot. Deceitful mobility. He is also vain and self-centred, refusing to work with other people for fear of diluting his talent.
In contrast, Paddington represents ‘the uniform integrity of the self’ who does not perform but is himself. The endearing, accident prone bear wins the hearts of his neighbours through window cleaning and reforms prisoners through marmalade sandwiches and baking. Maybe that’s the reason that Phoenix Buchanan hates Paddington so much – he so desperately wants to be adored, whereas Paddington’s friendships seem effortless.
Yet Paddington 2’s depiction of acting is more complex than this binary suggests. It is, after all, a film with actors and part of the joke about Phoenix being a failed actor is Hugh Grant’s own credits and reputation. Phoenix’s delicious histrionics make him one of the film’s best characters and his toe-tapping, wonderfully camp dance number after the credits role a highlight of the film. (Incidentally, the over-the-top-ness of Phoenix’s acting has the effect of masking Grant’s performance of the role; film acting, in which actors are more easily identified with their characters, seems more invisible than theatre acting. Is Ben Whishaw’s acting of Paddington erased by the fact he is an animated bear?). Paddington, too, performs. An immigrant and a bear in a human’s world, he must perform to fit himself into a baffling array of unspoken codes and shifting social environments; his comic faux-pas are often the result of falling short in this performance.
In a comparable way, the assumption of a binary between acting and the authentic self in Victorian views of acting is being rethought. Lynn Voskuil, drawing on George Henry Lewes’ theory of ‘natural acting’, argues that acting requires ‘a form of theatricalized self-knowledge, the capacity to be a player and spectator at the same time and to instantaneously transform one ’s own authentic feeling into the artificial materials of art’ (Acting Naturally: Victorian Theatricality and Authenticity). Acting isn’t deceitful, it can be a process of self-discovery, and requires a self-awareness we should all cultivate. Therefore, Phoenix’s joke in the prison credit sequence that all he needed was a ‘captive audience’ can be read as his attaining the ultimate self-knowledge. I hope to see Paddington to take to the stage in Paddington 3 to find out just what kind of bear he is and can be.
(Here’s a link to Paddington going to the theatre with the Browns https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g5hJwy778z4)