Penguins Behinds Bars (2003, Canada)

At last! A prison movie that knows its plaice!

This is a short, gentle, melancholy film – full of prison clichés, pathos, personal tragedy… and the odd bad pun.

At its penguin heart is young Doris Fairfeather (voiced by Lili Taylor), who falls for the debonair Charlie Abaloney. Doris’s parents are not so taken with him, reflecting that he ‘smelt fishy,’ but she’s smitten. At one point they’re out driving, and Charlie suddenly tells her to pull over, in front of the Pearl Bank. He waddles out with a bagful of pearls, and orders Doris to drive fast; when they reach the pier, pursued by police, he jumps into a boat and gets away, leaving Doris to be arrested. She is sentenced to 10 years for pearl robbery and sent to a maximum-security penguintentiary.

In its 23 and a bit minutes, it covers a lot of familiar prison territory. An older, experienced prisoner, Mad’m Millie (Patricia Collins), offers to keep an eye out for Doris, and shows her the ropes. Perhaps inevitably, there’s a shower scene, some shenanigans in the laundry, some breaking of rocks, and mess room scenes. There’s also Babs (Alberta Watson), the prison top dog, who vindictively plants a bag of krill under Doris’s bed, for which Doris gets a month in ‘the hole’ (literally a hole). Babs, naturally enough, is in cahoots with the overbearing Head Matron, Thelma Rruffwater (Patricia Gage).

When Doris belatedly comes to the realisation that she’s been duped and that Charlie is a cad (“Let me tell you something, honey,” Millie tells her, “All men are algae…”) she finds herself pitted against the (predominantly male) system – a lawyer who’s not acting in her interests, a man who has used her and is far from being held to account, and no way to prove her innocence.

Unexpectedly, things come to a climax when there is a fight in the mess room, and Doris’s pitiful, damaged cellmate, Flotsam (Catherine Fitch), who – according to one trailer, has been charged with infanticide, and who carries a substitute Shrimp baby – stabs Babs with a swordfish bill served up at that night’s dinner.

Doris, again an innocent bystander, gets another 10 years as an accessory.

But she seems resigned to her fate. Institutionalisation kicks in, and in due course it is she who is offering to keep an eye out for young newcomers to prison. And the sad penguin parade continues.

This is a lovely, wistful film. Not a big tragedy on the world scale, but a major tragedy for Doris Fairfeather. And there are some major, some minor tragedies in the stories of all the other penguins, no doubt, if their stories were to be told. It has my seal of approval.




Catch it on YouTube.

Posted on August 19th, 2020 at 10:20 pm. Updated on August 19th, 2020 at 10:20 pm.

#142 in the Top 500

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