Downton Abbey (2019)

2019 #128
Michael Engler | 122 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | PG / PG

Downton Abbey

As the 2020s loom, with the world in a scary old place for a whole host of reasons, why not retreat to the safety of the 1920s, when posh toffs ran the country because their birthright had put them there rather than because the hoi polloi had actually chosen to vote for them in some act of retrograde nationalism. Downton Abbey does actually feature a subplot where a group of working-class servants secretly plot to overthrow the system… but the system in question is the one about who gets to serve the King and Queen their dinner. The working classes fighting amongst themselves about something fundamentally unimportant while the upper classes carry on serenely above them? It’s almost allegorical, although I suspect not on purpose.

No, like the TV show it’s a sequel to, Downton Abbey is much too busy being a comforting blanket of “it was better in the old days” jollity to bother with social commentary. Creator/screenwriter Julian Fellowes throws in the odd nod to more progressive concerns (republicanism, LGBT rights, the fading fortunes and relevance of the aristocracy), but they’re no more than hat-tips in the general direction of modernity. It’s as if he’s trying to say, “yes, I know this is all terribly outdated,” before adding, “but why don’t we just enjoy it for a bit, eh?” Well, we do all need an escape into fantasy sometimes, and not everyone likes it in the form of a bespandexed private army battling purple aliens.

Certainly, you’ll need to be prepared to engage with the concerns of this rarefied world if you want to find any drama here, where major points of jeopardy include whether there’s enough time to polish all the silver and if they can manage to put some chairs out while it’s raining. Sure, there are subplots including things like an assassination attempt and a police raid on a gay bar, but they’re not treated as being nearly so significant as who cooks dinner.

Polishing the silver. Not a euphemism.

So, yes, it’s mostly puff about pomp and pageantry — if you were after a film to perfectly encapsulate “heritage cinema”, you could hardly do better. But who would’ve expected anything else? Surely we’re all familiar with the TV series, even if you’ve never seen it, and naturally this big-screen version continues in a similar vein. At its core the series was really just a posh soap, and that style of melodrama is recreated here also: the engaged kitchen maid’s eye is caught by a hunky plumber; what’s behind the uncommonly close relationship between the Queen’s lady-in-waiting and her maid; will someone’s new royal appointment force them to miss the birth of their child; and so on.

If it’s beginning to sound like there are a lot of different storylines, well, there are. That’s another legacy of it originally being an ensemble TV show, of course: there’s a big, broad cast and every character must be given their due. Consequently, some reviews have accused the film of having no story, which I think is unfair. The primary plot is simple — literally just “the King and Queen visit Downton Abbey” — but it’s there. And the way the film chooses to depict this story — as a collage of subplots that, as a collective, show how the visit is prepared for and executed from the perspectives of a variety of roles at every level — is hardly an unheard of cinematic format for providing an overview of an event or situation. The reason for Downton taking this approach are rooted in its televisual origins, but if you wanted to consider it divorced from that context then you’d merely see a structural similarity to something like Nashville, for example.

Of course, the fact that Downton is a sequel to a six-season TV series is something most of us won’t ignore, whether because you’re a dedicated viewer coming to this as the 53rd episode, or you’re a neophyte with a background awareness that anything you don’t understand may be because it was explained in the TV show. I find myself in the slightly unusual position of someone who straddles both these stools: I stopped watching somewhere in the third series, so I know who most of the characters are and where their stories began, but I’m unaware of what went on for them in later years and who some of the later additions are. Fortunately, the highly structured class divide of the setting makes it easy to get a grasp on most things. Characters’ backgrounds are not as clearly explained as you’d expect to find in a truly standalone movie, but I think the fundamentals can be ascertained well enough. That said, I say that as someone who had a leg up from watching some of the series, so a total newcomer may find it more bewildering.

What's the deference?

One thing that’s interesting, returning to this world as someone who skipped a few years of it, is how much the emphasis has changed in places. By which I mean, some characters who once had a major are now given short shrift. For example, Hugh Bonneville has always been the de facto lead face of the programme, which makes sense as he’s Lord Grantham, head of the Downton household; and he’s still top billed in the opening credits, although I think that may be more a happy accident (I believe it listed the entire returning series cast in alphabetical order) than an indication of status. Either way, he has very little to do here, with other cast members taking centre stage. The real headliner in the series was always Maggie Smith’s acerbic Dowager Countess, and that continues to be the case here, as she snags both the lion’s share of the funny lines and the film’s most genuinely emotional scene. It feels like something of an ode to the venerable actress herself as much as it is a bit of in-universe business, and who could really begrudge such merited reverence? As to the rest of the cast, there are plenty of reviews out there that approach the film in more detail from either a fan or newbie perspective, so if you’re interested in specifics it may be worth seeking those out.

Some might argue this movie could’ve just as well turned up as a TV special, and, story-wise, it’s hard to disagree. Nonetheless, director Michael Engler and DP Ben Smithard have given proceedings a bit of big-screen pizzazz, using a 2.39:1 frame to accentuate grander shot choices and occasional cinematic flourishes, and much of the photography exhibits a warm-sunlight glow that makes you wonder if they somehow shot the whole thing during golden hour. And while too many big-screen re-dos ignore the emotive power of familiar music (see the Spooks movie for one where I specifically complained about it, for instance), here composer David Lunn’s familiar Downton theme is used to striking effect. I must admit that, even as someone who didn’t stick with the series and hasn’t watched it for years, the opening minutes gave me goosebumps.

Is the sun setting on this empire?

Truth be told, that’s not a terrible analogy for my reaction to the movie as a whole. Its near-fetishisation of regressive social modes should be distasteful, and some of its soapy scenes are accompanied by clunky dialogue and stiff acting that make it feel like you’re watching a period-dress episode of Coronation Street; but it can also unleash a sharp wit or well-constructed bit of farce (I laughed often), and there’s a certain majesty to the scenic, pretty-postcard photography that sweeps you up into its less complicated world. If you take it for what it is — a portrait of a time gone by — then it’s a likeable little jaunt.

4 out of 5

Downton Abbey is in cinemas now.

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015)

2016 #38
John Madden | 118 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English & Indian | PG / PG

The Second Best Exotic Marigold HotelThe Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is not the kind of movie you expect to spawn a sequel in the current climate (i.e. it’s not a CGI-fuelled PG-13 science-fiction action extravaganza), but when you consider that it made $136.8 million on a budget of just $10 million, the existence of this follow-up becomes more understandable. The first was based on a novel, but that doesn’t have a sequel, so you’d be forgiven for assuming the movie sequel is a shameless cash-in. Far from it — if anything, it may even be better than the first.

There’s little point me setting up the plot here, because if you haven’t seen the first movie then this one launches out of it enough that you’ll spend forever playing catch-up, and if you have seen it, well, “the storylines continue” sums much of it up. The sequel is given narrative shape both by the forthcoming wedding of the hotel’s owner (Dev Patel), and the fact that he wants to open a second location. For the latter he’s sought funding from a US chain, so when Richard Gere turns up he’s assumed to be a ‘secret shopper’ come to assess the hotel.

As that story unfolds, along with the film’s raft of subplots, it essentially repeats the tone of the first movie: gentle drama mixed with gentle humour in roughly equal measure; though this time there’s an added dose of romance in pretty much every plotline. It works because the cast are so darn good at delivering their material. Dev Patel and Maggie Smith are both hilarious, though everyone gets a moment to shine in the comedy stakes; conversely, Judi Dench and Bill Nighy carry the heart of the movie — though, again, everyone gets their emotional moment.

It’s easy to dismiss films like this as twee vehicles chasing the so-called ‘grey pound’, but, in this instance at least, that would do it a disservice. When a film is as amusing and emotional as this one, while also exploring an increasingly relevant aspect of life — an aspect which is too often ignored by mass entertainment that’s more concerned with acquiring the easily-earned disposable income of youngsters — and is as well-made, too (in particular, Ben Smithard’s cinematography is rich with gorgeous light, colour, and contrast) — then its audience should reach far wider than the age bracket of its principal characters.

4 out of 5

Murder by Death (1976)

2015 #120
Robert Moore | 91 mins | download | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

A gaggle of famed detectives are summoned to a remote mansion to solve a murder in this detective spoof by playwright Neil Simon. The twist is, all the characters are spoofs of famous literary/film/TV ‘tecs. Also, that the murder hasn’t happened yet. And also, that the person inviting them is Truman Capote. Not “someone playing Truman Capote”, but “Truman Capote playing someone”.

A comedy where a bunch of people are invited to a remote mansion to solve a murder? Yes, it does sound an awful lot like Clue. Indeed, based on my reading, almost all modern assessments of the film seem to boil down to two straightforward alternatives: “it’s not as good as Clue” or “it’s better than Clue”. As it pre-dates Clue by almost a decade, maybe that shouldn’t be our only point of reference? Still, I guess the ’80s-ness and name-y cast of the later film has helped it gain more traction — it certainly seems to be on TV regularly, whereas I only learnt of Murder by Death as a footnote when reading up on the Thin Man series.

For what it’s worth, I think its quality is about level with Clue. Such appreciation may partly depend on one’s familiarity with the characters being spoofed, however: it’s a funny story in and of itself, but a fair dollop of the humour revolves around riffs on the personalities, quirks, and storytelling tropes of Nick & Nora Charles, Poirot, Miss Marple, Sam Spade, and Charlie Chan, whereas Clue requires, at most, that you know the icons from Cluedo.

I said Clue has a namier cast, but Murder by Death is no slouch, including Maggie Smith, David Niven, Peter Falk, and Alec Guinness as a blind butler, an affliction that’s mined for all its comedic value (and then some). They all give great comic performances, as does James Coco as the film’s version of Poirot. There are some neat send-ups of the genre — the literally-impossible mysteries and all that — as well as some good old-fashioned wordplay and silliness. The only downside is it loses its way a bit by the end. I suppose it doesn’t strictly need a satisfactory conclusion to the mystery, because it’s only a spoof ‘n’ all, but I feel like it would’ve benefitted from a stronger finale nonetheless.

However, it’s a consistently amusing film, and everyone involved seems to be having a whale of a time. It’s definitely worth seeking out for fans of detective fiction who don’t mind the genre being gently ribbed.

4 out of 5

Becoming Jane (2007)

2008 #91
Julian Jarrold | 115 mins | DVD | PG / PG

Becoming JaneDirector Julian Jarrold seems to have found his cinematic niche in “coming a bit late”. His Kinky Boots, while entertaining, was reminiscent of films like The Full Monty… except 8 years later; Becoming Jane rides the Pride & Prejudice bandwagon… except 18 months later; and his latest, the new Brideshead Revisited, had something of the Atonements about it… except 6 months later. At least his lead times have got shorter.

Perhaps Jarrold’s other inspiration here was Batman Begins. No, bear with me, for this is Austen Begins: Jane’s literary career has yet to start, but as the film progresses we see something of her personality taking shape — and plenty of the inspiration for her novels. Lord alone knows how factual any of it is, but I’m sure it must be a lot of fun for certain Austenites. On the other hand, purists might be less pleased with their idol being constantly lovelorn and indulging in (whisper it, children) snogging. For those with only the most cursory knowledge of Austen’s work, these might be the only things that stop them believing this is an adaptation of one of her novels; though, in truth, they’re probably not even that intrusive.

The big advantage to this being a somewhat Hollywoodised version of the story is the slew of English acting talent on display. Julie Walters, Maggie Smith and Ian Richardson are all present, in roles of varying sizes, plus the younger Anna Maxwell Martin (Bleak House) and Laurence Fox (son of Edward); not to mention James McAvoy, busy appearing in everything under the sun at the time. In the lead role, Anne Hathaway does a fine job, though there’s the inevitable question of “why not cast a Brit?” (to which one must assume the answer is, “for the sake of the US box office”). At least her accent is good.

Becoming Jane is a Jane Austen biopic treated as if it were a Jane Austen novel. In fact, so much is it embedded in the writing of Pride & Prejudice — and the notion that most of that was inspired by her own life — that it occasionally feels like another adaptation of it. This approach is a little uncomfortable in places, though probably makes sense considering the target market; and, by being so relatively lightweight, the resultant films seems to have faced less criticism from some Austenites than the similarly-timed TV biopic, Miss Austen Regrets. It’s for precisely this reason that the latter was a superior product, however: it may be darker and less uplifting — it ends with Austen’s death, rather than the start of her literary career — but it has a level of reflection that makes it more than Austen-Lite. Unlike this.

3 out of 5

Becoming Jane is on BBC Two today, Wednesday 31st December 2014, at 1:20pm.

(Originally posted on 27th January 2009.)

A Room with a View (1985)

2008 #14
James Ivory | 112 mins | download | PG

A Room with a ViewI can’t help but wonder if, back in 1985, there was any audience confusion between A Room with a View and A View to a Kill. One can imagine legions of Bond fans accidentally finding themselves with a witty heritage drama, and legions of old dears accidentally finding themselves with a man twice their age trying to be an action hero. (In actuality the films were released about a year apart — that being just one reason this is a particularly silly notion.)

Putting aside such nonexistent confusion, what of that witty heritage drama? Once again, thanks to the adaptations module of my degree, I’m stuck watching a film straight after reading the novel it’s based on. So far these viewings have supported my long-held theory that reading any novel before watching the film version (especially immediately before) is a Very Bad Idea. However good A Room with a View may be — and it certainly has its share of positives — it still pales slightly in direct comparison to the novel.

The film’s faithfulness is admirable at least, combining events effectively at times and at others leaving well alone. Unfortunately this “copying out” style of adaptation means that the dialogue is exactly as written but sometimes loses important elements through its abbreviation. In the novel, characters frequently mean something entirely different to what they say, but you wouldn’t guess so in the film. Similarly, a lot of the novel’s wittiness is lost — unsurprising, as much is carried in Forster’s narration, which here is largely left unadapted. “Largely”, because chapter names occasionally intrude as intertitles or subtitles. These usually merely skip what would be a few lines of expositional dialogue, but occasionally they’re entirely pointless, and frequently are rendered meaningless by what would otherwise be minor tweaks to the plot. As I suggested at the start, however, a lot of these flaws are only blatant when placed in stark contrast with the novel.

Others aren’t. Julian Sands is disappointingly flat as love interest George Emerson, and he frequently drags Helena Bonham Carter down with him (and not in the “written by Andrew Davies” sense). In my opinion, Bonham Carter is the weak line in an otherwise flawless cast, neither acting nor looking much like my image of Lucy (Sands might not give much of a performance, but at least he looks the part, and Emerson is meant to be quite awkward). This could well be just my personal vision clashing with that of the filmmakers, of course, but there you have it. Those two aside, the rest of the cast are excellent: Maggie Smith and Judi Dench are note-perfect, especially in the handful of scenes they share (it’s a real shame Dench’s character disappears before the halfway mark); Daniel Day-Lewis is the right mix of comical, annoying and unfortunate truth as Cecil; and Simon Callow, Denholm Elliott and a young Rupert Graves are also perfect fits for their roles.

Finally, no Room with a review (ho ho) can be complete without praising how gorgeous Italy looks here. The camera lingers on the art and architecture more like a documentary than a fiction film, taking the viewer on a sightseeing tour just as much as the characters. There are essays to be written (indeed, they have been) on why such spectacle is a bad thing, but if you don’t want to be so pretentious then it’s wonderful to look at. Which, in many ways, sums up the entire film.

4 out of 5

Ladies in Lavender (2004)

2007 #36
Charles Dance | 100 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

While You Were SleepingJudi Dench puts in her fourth appearance in this list (far and away the most represented actor, I should think) in Charles Dance’s first film as writer and director.

Dench and her long-time friend Maggie Smith play believable sisters in a beautiful Cornish setting who discover a young Pole washed up on their beach. The story progresses from there in a gentle but engrossing fashion, and the cast of experienced Brits are as excellent as ever.

4 out of 5