"I’ve always wanted to be happy, so I decided to be"
Half Zelig, half Derek but thankfully not at all like the cloying sentimental guff that was Forrest Gump, Peter Bowker's Marvellous lives up to its name; a marvellous life affirming story about one man's refusal to be pigeonholed as one of societies 'vulnerable' or 'disadvantaged' that could teach us all - able bodied as much as people with disabilities - a valid life lesson.
It is the true life story of Neil Baldwin who, in his time, has been 'Nello' the professional clown, greeter and one man student services at Keele University, bird fancier, lay preacher, friend of clergy, politicians and celebrities and Stoke City's kit man - or as then manager Lou Macari claims "the best signing I ever made"
It could be argued that Neil Baldwin has learning difficulties. It could be, but it's not confirmed and it doesn't matter. Because such a diagnosis would change nothing for Neil, who has never courted sympathy or special handling. He just sees life as something you should get on with, treating everyone as you wish to be treated and being happy. He doesn't believe for one minute he has 'difficulties' so why should we?
It could be argued he is one of life’s naive innocents, someone who believes if you ask for something, you’ll more than likely get it and that something will always turn up. But is that naivety or innocence? Based on what we see here I don't think it is, because Neil's belief is more often than not proved to be perfectly right. Strikes me that Neil Baldwin is the wisest of us all.
Baldwin is played beautifully by Toby Jones (most recently seen in BBC4's excellent detectorists) a man fast approaching national treasure status for those who truly appreciate our acting talent. Small and somewhat fragile seeming in stature, Jones' physicality belies his powerhouse performance style and his ability to totally engage with a viewer on an emotional, profound level. He shares the screen with some equally great performances from the likes of Gemma Jones as his devoted mother, Tony Curran as Macari, Greg McHugh as his student friend and Nicholas Gleaves as his local vicar.
But Jones isn't the only Neil Baldwin in the film, we have the real one too; a great and knowing twist in the way his story is told, allowing Toby’s Neil to chat with the real Neil. This works really well as it allows Toby/Neil to ask real Neil questions the audience are no doubt pondering; when we're witness to Neil being on the receiving end of some of the more playground style behaviour of Stoke's footballers and fans or Keele's students, Toby/Neil remarks "They weren't nice to you" to which real Neil simply shrugs "It's just banter" he replies, a beatific smile on his face. It enables us to acknowledge Neil's unique approach to life, accept it is water off a duck's back to him and move on, ready for the next amazing step in his life's journey. And in having the real Neil there (along with the real Lou Macari at one stage too) we're reminded by the fact that what we are seeing did, on the whole, actually happen. Strange but beautifully true!
The film closes with a choir singing 'One Neil Baldwin, there's only one Neil Baldwin' Perfectly true, but also maybe a little disappointing for the rest of us.