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Film review: Cottontail (2023) by Patrick Dickinson

The Japanese family comes together on a Sisyphean quest in England in Patrick Dickinson's warm and sweet drama.

Alzheimer's and its consequences for the family dynamics is a staple diet of international, festival-friendly cinema, as we can see year after year. Usually, the very topic is used to tell a terminally tragic story, but other roads are also possible. How about a journey of reconciliation?

This is the case with 's “”, developed from his earlier short “Usagi-san” (2013). The film premiered at Rome Film Festival last year, bringing its auteur the award for the best debut (fiction) feature. It was also screened at Belgrade International Film Festival – FEST, just before its release in Japan, which is, in its own merit, a success for a small indie that is predominantly a British co-production.

However, the story starts in Japan, where recently widowed former writer Kenzaburo () has to come to terms with his beloved wife Akiko's () passing as the consequence of Alzheimer's. In his stubbornness, he tries to distance himself from their son Toshi () by practising his bad habit of drinking himself stupid, but he is actually more protective towards the grown man he still sees as his little boy, than he is downright cold to him. On the other hand, it is evident that it was Akiko who kept the family together.

The chance of reconciliation between the father, the son and his own family consisting of the wife Satsuki () and their precious little daughter, comes in the form of Akiko's dying wish recorded in the form of a video-letter. In her “last will” of sorts, she declares that her ashes should be scattered around the lake of Windermere in England, where she spent one summer holiday with her parents in her childhood, reading the books of Beatrix Potter, mostly about Peter the Rabbit and his family (hence the title). It is possibly the clearest of her childhood memories, and the memory she is most fond of, but it also turns out to be the reason why she met Kenzaburo at first place: when they were both young, she approached him to teach her English, so she could revisit the books and the place of her memory and fantasy.

Guided by only one pretty generic photo, Kenzaburo, Toshi and his family take on the quest of finding the place to say goodbyes to Akiko. But when Kenzaburo's early dementia combined with his stubbornness sets in, he decides to take a trip on his own in a completely foreign country, so the Sisyphean endeavor becomes even more complicated.

As said before, “Cottontail” is a British-Japanese co-production by a British filmmaker whose previous work consists mainly of shorts and TV documentaries in his native country. However, Dickinson studied Japanese cinema both in the UK and in Japan, so it should not come as a huge surprise that he nails the tone and the emotion of both the classic and the contemporary Japanese drama movies, from Ozu to Koreeda. Like with the Japanese masters, everything in Dickinson's film is subordinated to the humanity (and the humaneness) of his characters.

Script-wise, there is still something to be desired in terms of the characters' backgrounds that could be more detailed, making the starting point of the dynamics between them a bit more clear. Also, the connection between Akiko, Potter's children's literature and the place seems a bit underdeveloped and, at times, random, demanding a considerable leap of faith from the viewers. But the well-meaning ones ready to submit to Dickinson's story will not feel it as a pain or even a particular effort.

Luckily, the filmmaker trusts his actors, especially Lily Franky, to channel all the right emotions, and Franky showcases the ability to command emotion with his sheer screen presence. The involvement of Ciaran and in smaller roles later in the film also helps a lot. Dickinson's use of the gentle music score by Stefan Gregory, the locations and the close-ups in Mark Wolf's Cinemascope cinematography is a proper treat, while the measured editing by Andrew Jadavji keeps the runtime in the low-90s, making sure that “Cottontail” never outstays its welcome. It is such a sweet and warm piece of cinema.

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