Directed by Charles Martin Smith.
Starring Luke Treadaway, Kristina Tonteri-Young, Phaldut Sharma, Stefan Race, Celyn Jones, Tim Plester, Pepter Lunkuse, Anna Wilson-Jones, Daisy Badger, Nina Wadia and Bob the Cat.
James reminisces about a difficult Christmas, involving financial hardship and a struggle with overzealous animal welfare officials who threaten to take Bob from him.
The 2016 drama A Street Cat Named Bob was hardly a slam-dunk sequel prospect. It was an amiable British story with a social conscience, adapted from the memoirs of James Bowen – a man who dragged himself up from the gutter with the help of a stray cat who refused to leave him alone. A strong UK bow, though, and an expectation-smashing run in Chinese cinemas means that the adorable tabby Bob is back for the festive tale A Christmas Gift from Bob. Prepare the tear ducts, because it’s another emotional run.
As the story begins, James (Luke Treadaway) is attending a high-flying book event – say hello to a cameoing Jacqueline Wilson – when he meets rough sleeper Ben (Stefan Race) in a confrontation with officials. The young homeless man’s predicament leads James to reminisce about a Christmas he previously shared with Bob. Money was tight and animal welfare officials were questioning his ability to care for his buddy. With the festive season closing in, it was down to James and charity volunteer friend Bea (Kristina Tonteri-Young) to convince the authorities that Bob was where he should be.
It’s a conventional underdog – or perhaps under-cat – plot, but one that’s told with flair and warmth by new director Charles Martin Smith, working from a script by Bowen’s memoir co-writer Garry Jenkins. The film, like its predecessor, is at once fluffy and charming while also maintaining the necessary grit of a movie that has something to say about the terrible state of poverty in this country. A simple mishap on James’s part, like leaving his gas heater running or falling on his guitar while fighting off a mugger, can cause his fragile financial house of cards to crumble, leaving him vulnerable to everything he has worked so hard to escape. It’s a bracing reminder of just how close we all are to severe hardship.
Gift from Bob is not an overtly polemical film, but it’s even more willing than the first movie to fire its shots. “They know we’re here,” says Treadaway’s James in a scene in which he looks down upon the City of London, adding: “Who else puts spikes on doorways? They just want us out of sight.” This is a movie about people reaching out for help and to offer that help to others. It’s about togetherness and connection – the antithesis of everything the UK’s political class seems to treasure. And in 2020, that sort of compassion is worth its weight in gold.
It helps that Bob – who sadly passed away this summer, after filming had finished – is an absolute A-lister. He’s a charismatic co-star for Treadaway, who excels as a man fighting a constant string of injustices. Tonteri-Young is terrific too as a replacement for the luminous energy of Ruta Gedmintas last time around, bringing commitment and heartbreak to the role of a truly selfless woman determined to keep as many Londoners fed over Christmas as possible. The real standout, though, is Phaldut Sharma – consistently hilarious as James’s newsagent buddy Moody, who loves a lengthy story with a just about tangible moral message.
Obviously, there are cracks in the armour of A Christmas Gift from Bob. Its naked sentimentality won’t appeal to everybody and there are numerous plot threads which don’t really seem to go anywhere, including tension between James and a fellow Big Issue vendor and the presence of Anna Wilson-Jones as a Nigella Lawson-esque TV cook. These ambling threads, though, fade into insignificance in the wake of the emotional catharsis of the film’s conclusion, which turns Covent Garden into the perfect backdrop for a big, silly, snow-drenched finale.
This is certainly a film that knows what it’s doing and isn’t afraid to embrace a Christmas cliché or two in pursuit of the perfect festive concoction. But as we reach the tail end of a year which has been bathed in truly unprecedented misery, there’s nothing wrong with something that prioritises warmth above all else. It’s a fitting tribute to the legacy of British cinema’s most famous cat, as well as another opportunity to shine a spotlight on the horrifying poverty that still sits at the heart of the world’s sixth richest economy. There’s Christmas spirit in this movie, sure, but it comes with the cold chill of necessary truth-telling.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.