16 June 2010

Tom & Thomas

Tom & Thomas A Darling Little Film
By Kristin Battestella

This 2002 family drama from Dutch director Esme Lammers was actually recommended to me a few years ago.  Now that the DVD is available stateside, I was finally able to take a peak at Tom & Thomas- and it’s a charming and thoughtful little caper.

Tom & ThomasThomas (Aaron Johnson) and his adoptive father Paul (Sean Bean) are doing all right, despite the passing of Paul’s wife Laura and the usual trouble of bills and keeping the flat tidy.  Thomas, however, still dreams of his imaginary friend Tom (also Johnson), who is stuck in a cruel orphanage where he is whipped by handyman Finch (Bill Stewart).  Thomas begins having trouble at school himself, with falling grades and bullying thanks to strange sensations and pains when something bad happens to Tom.  For unbeknownst to Thomas, Tom is a real boy who escapes his institution for the streets of London.  When the two boys meet at the Space Museum, the usual brotherly bonding and twin hijinks ensue.  Unfortunately, Finch and Head Master Bancroft (Derek de Lint) want their quarry back- and they erroneously kidnap Thomas instead.

Naturally, Tom & Thomas begins with a little confusion as to which boy is which and which is even real.  However, Esme Lammers (Amazones) and scriptwriter Jim Davies (Casualty) establish the latent but intimate connections between the twins, and the happy circumstance of one boy versus the unfortunate situation of the other quickly ingratiates the audience.  The swift editing clarifies which child is which, leaving just enough ambiguity and speculation about what’s really going on.  Lammers carefully moves us through these concurrent but separate stories, keeping us vested in each as we move to their inevitable convergence. The story is on one hand, predictable and what we expect in a separated at birth country mouse and city mouse style.  However, scary real world turns keep Tom & Thomas intense-perhaps even a little too menacing or more visually sinister than the 10 and under target audience usually sees.  Thankfully, the charming, heartwarming, and relatable tale keeps up the interest and suspense from beginning to end.

In all the Sean Bean films I’ve seen, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him portray such a lovable father and wholesome family gent.  Paul’s a poor painter thanks to his hang up of only painting his late wife; but he’s doing right by Thomas, and the role change towards this kindhearted widower is wonderfully welcome after so many action oriented and villainous parts.  Bean’s only other father figure roles from the horror flicks The Dark and Silent Hill and the class action lawsuit vehicle North Country followed several years later.  Unfortunately, in those three films total Bean doesn’t even get the screen time- much less any development of his character- as he does in Tom & Thomas. The man is a father and family man himself, so we should expect he can portray such onscreen, but his Samba Bus driving sensible dad is a pleasant surprise nonetheless.  They say one should never work with kids or dogs, but Bean’s charm with his young co-stars and determination onscreen will steal the show for his die-hard lady fans.

Inday Ba (Casualty) is also delightful as Celia Scofield, Thomas and Paul’s new downstairs neighbor.  Nothing is made of any racial issues in her budding romance with Paul, and any romantic strides come after she has befriended Thomas over their mutual love of piloting and spaceflight.  Celia and Thomas’ relationship comes first, keeping the storylines charming and innocent. Right off the bat, we know there is nothing creepy in their friendship-unlike the nasty adults at Tom’s school. This was simply a wonderful piece of casting and performance-an ethnic, mature, professional Celia can be intelligent, a sassy pilot, and an independent woman whilst still taking time to play video games with a nine year old.  Upon my research, I’m sorry to find that Ba has passed away too young and too soon.  Her adult and mature example of being true to oneself and following one’s dreams is portrayed as inspiration, and rightfully so.

Yes, the villains are a little stereotypical, but Bill Stewart (A Touch of Frost, Richard II) and Derek de Lint (China Beach, Poltergeist the Legacy) are no less menacing thanks to the nefarious trafficking at hand.  The late Stewart’s Finch (What is it about the creepy handymen at kid’s schools being named Finch, Mr. Potter?) is dirty and frightening while de Lint is the oh-so-slick front man.  Sean Harris (Outlaw) as kid-poacher Kevin is also a genuinely scary sidekick thanks to his high-energy craziness and a very nasty pet rottweiler. The dogs in Tom & Thomas are simplistically made out to be either heroic or villainous, but there’s also an even suggestion that how the owner trains the dog has a lot to do with that- in kin also to how the boys are different thanks to heredity versus environment.  It’s not such a bad thing, however, to have the bad guys be bad and the good folks wear the proverbial white hats. The real world ruthlessness on screen is scary enough-we don’t have to get fancy with effects and melodrama for these villains and fears to be understood by young or old.  

Aaron Johnson (Nearly Famous, Kick Ass) and stand in Ryan Nelson (White Teeth) do wonders as the titular boys.  For being so young and inexperienced at the time, Johnson subtly crafts different styles and mannerisms for Tom and Thomas.  At first, it’s easy to differentiate the boys by location and clothing, but once they dress the same, we still know who is who thanks to smartly placed vocalization and personality.  Not only does Johnson give each boy different charm with Bean, but you can’t help but love both boys’ social quirks.  Yes, it’s the same actor, but we do think of Tom and Thomas as two different boys, each with youthful wishes and dreams that deserve to be fulfilled. I should rant about the US’ recent cancellation of our space program as crushing such wonderful astronomy dreams, but I digress! The space exploration angle may be too standard, but you can’t go wrong with disenchanted boys reaching for this height of heights.  For his part, Nelson does wonderfully in the technical aspects on screen.  You know he is there, along with the usual split screens and such, but the Haley Mills’ smoke and mirrors look dang good- especially in the ingenious house of mirrors scene.  What better place to have long lost twins meet?

Of course, Americans might not like the assorted British accents or the London locales, but the Britness certainly won’t deter any Anglophiles.  The visual style of Tom & Thomas is a little simplistic but understandably innate to a young viewer- a neat, colorful, creative loft of course wins against a drab, snowy, spooky, and ominous orphanage.  Quirky music sets the tone for the humorous twin switcheroos, or likewise scares or tugs our heartstrings with melancholy notes as needed.  Though not solely a Christmas film, the holiday’s charm adds to the joy of birthdays, parties, trees, and presents onscreen.  Perhaps there is a latent commentary here about the hidden yet ongoing and illegal buying and selling of children worldwide.  There’s also some non-threatening role reversal between Celia and Paul-but as adult viewers we see these things. Tom & Thomas isn’t about the social issues.  First and foremost, it’s an honest, personal tale of twins finding each other through their share of hardship. Who can’t appreciate that?

Yes, this DVD has until recently been very elusive.  Fortunately, Tom & Thomas’ bare bones set is available online for purchase or rent from Netflix.  The English subtitles probably go a long way for children not used to the accents; but other than a few onscreen dangers and suspense, there’s nothing here to deter a family viewing.  Tom & Thomas has all the cuteness, charm, and simplicity for young and old to enjoy. 

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