Movie Review ~ Downton Abbey


The Facts

Synopsis: The continuing story of the Crawley family, wealthy owners of a large estate in the English countryside in the early 20th century.

Stars: Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery, Kevin Doyle, Joanne Froggatt, Matthew Goode, Harry Hadden-Paton, Robert James-Collier, Allen Leech, Phyllis Logan, Elizabeth McGovern, Sophie McShera, Lesley Nicol, Penelope Wilton, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Geraldine James, Simon Jones, David Haig, Tuppence Middleton, Kate Phillips, Stephen Campbell Moore

Director: Michael Engler

Rated: PG

Running Length: 122 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Needless to say, if you aren’t up to date with Downton Abbey it’s best to steer clear of this review until after you’ve seen the film.  I wasn’t quite caught up by the time the movie came out so had to delay my visit with the Crawley family for a week, they understood and I will also understand if you need to bookmark this review and come back when you’ve finished the sixth season of Downton Abbey.  I shan’t spoil the movie, no worries on that, but I may wind up spoiling something from that richly fulfilling final episode…so you’ve been warned.

Christmas has definitely come early to all of the ardent fans of the Crawleys, their extended family, and their staff at Downtown Abbey.  The long buzzed about movie that’s a continuation of the series which wound up its run in 2015 has arrived and it’s an absolute delight.  Delivering everything we’ve come to expect in the show and managing to provide supremely satisfying moments for every one of the major cast members, the Downtown Abbey movie is that rare instance of a television series translating beautifully to a feature length film.  It’s arrived in style with a pristine release date far removed from the late summer madness and just ahead of the more achingly serious work the fall brings us. Sure, you can quibble it’s really just a two hour “special episode” of the show…but what an episode!

It’s 1927 and a letter arrives via post to let Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville, Paddington) and his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern, Ordinary People) know that the King and Queen will be staying at Downton Abbey for one night as part of their tour of the country.   Everyone has a job in preparation for this royal visit.  As the agent of the estate, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery, Non-Stop) makes sure the grounds are in order with the assistance of Tom (Alan Leech, Bohemian Rhapsody), who becomes distracted by the arrival of a strange man with unknown intentions.  Meanwhile, downstairs in the servants quarters emotions are running high in the kitchen with Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol, Ghostbusters) fretting over the food and Daisy (Sophie McShera, Cinderella) dragging her feet on setting a wedding date with Andy (Michael Fox, Dunkrik).  Butler Thomas (Robert James-Collier, The Ritual) struggles with the responsibilities of his first big test as head butler while continuing to suffer silently as he hides a personal secret.  Now retired, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter, The Witches) can’t quite relinquish his reins over the household staff, much to the withering eye of his wife (Phyllis Logan, Secrets & Lies).

There’s more family and staff to cover but I’d rather let you see for yourself where writer Julian Fellows (Tomorrow Never Dies) takes these beloved characters over the ensuing two hours.  With the royal family bringing their own staff who wind up undermining the servants at Downtown Abbey, you can imagine there’s room for mischief as well as more serious subjects of marital strife and illegitimate children.  At least no one shows up to arrest Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle, Me Before You) or his wife Anna (Joanne Froggart)…that seemed to happen every season 🙂  While I’m sure the storyline for the film had been percolating in Fellows brain for some time (and may even have been planned for the television show) he’s made good work of making the most out of the screen time each person is given in the film.  Fellows has always been good at using language eloquently and not saying something in 10 words when he could use 5 and that carries over here, too.  As such, the good-natured back and forth between the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith, The Secret Garden) and Isobel (Penelope Wilton, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) is as crisp and crackling as ever.  I could honestly have sat for two hours, watched these women have a slyly barbed conversation, and been just as happy.

Were the main sources of conflict, like many situations in Downtown Abbey the series, things that could be solved if people had just sat down and talked with one another instead of gossiping secondhand or outright avoiding the subject entirely?  Of course.  Yet this is something longtime fans have come to expect from the show so it’s all much easier to swallow than a standalone feature without an established rhythm. Were there characters I missed seeing?  Sure.  Both of the Countesses hysterically squabbling servants are sadly absent and the film lacks an imposing figure that presents a significant challenge to anyone.  Did I think some staff members got a little more time to shine than others?  Yeah.  Yet these characters shining now often took a backseat in the series so why not let them have their moment in the sun.

With its high flying shots of Downtown Abbey (really Highclere Castle), all the familiar locations back in play, and that gorgeous theme music used in all the right places, director Michael Engler (who directed four episodes of the series, including the finale) doesn’t have to do much but let the actors do their thing speaking Fellows words while wearing Anna Robbins (Wild Rose) gorgeous costumes.  I think the finale of the film goes on a bit too long and rather serious/emotional conversation behind closed doors is inter-cut intrusively with another scene in a ballroom, but by that time I felt I had no right complaining because up until then Downton Abbey folk had been such great hosts.  With a smash bang opening and steady box office returns, the possibility of a return visit to Downtown looks highly likely.

Movie Review ~ Britt-Marie Was Here (Britt-Marie var här)

The Facts

Synopsis: Accepting a supremely unglamorous job at a ramshackle rec center in the backwater town of Borg, Britt-Marie finds herself taking an interest in the daily routines of the town’s oddball denizens – who all seem perfectly content to be stuck in their ways.

Stars: Pernilla August, Peter Haber, Anders Mossling, Malin Levanon, Olle Sarri, Vera Vitali

Director: Tuva Novotny

Rated: NR

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  As much as the next person, I take some special delight in creature comforts.  This could be relaxing on a rainy day, whipping up a favorite family recipe that most definitely isn’t a part of a well-balanced diet, or exploring the outdoors and communing with nature.  Mostly, if I want to hunker down and take it easy, I spark with formula films that don’t require much emotional investment yet still give me a good return on the time I’m devoting to the venture.  Not every movie can be a When Harry Met Sally… or Indian Summer or Mermaids.

That’s the case with Britt-Marie Was Here, a Swedish film based on the 2014 novel by Fredrik Backman.  It’s your standard paint-by-numbers drama about a woman leaving behind a long marriage for something new and challenging.  In the process of stepping out of her comfort zone she learns about valuing herself more and gains a greater understanding of the world at large.  This isn’t exactly revolutionary material but it isn’t without merit either.  There’s room and a desire for these stories to be told…but they need to be told better than this.

Britt-Marie (celebrated Swedish actress Pernilla August, best known to American audiences as Anakin Skywalker’s mother in the Star Wars prequels) lives a life dominated by lists and order.  Her marriage to Kent has become predictable, her routines set in stone.  When her life is upended at a most inopportune time, Britt-Marie surprises even herself by leaving her stability behind and taking a job working in a small town managing their rec center.  Expected to also coach their football (soccer) team, Britt-Marie finds that the town and the children she’s now responsible for need more than a good cleaning and a semblance of order.

The source novel the film was based on has been adapted by Anders Frithiof August, Øystein Karlsen, and director Tuva Novotny and I’d be interested to see if the original text was as clunky as what the three screenwriters have produced here.  The movie goes through the motions in such a staid way that you half expect to look down and see blueprints on the floor guiding the actors to the next scene.  Nothing happens that’s unexpected or surprising – which is a shame because the author of the book has given us something interesting before.  The 2015 film A Man Called Ove was a surprise sleeper hit in the art house circuit.  Good word of mouth kept the film running for quite some time and I think I finally saw it when it had been playing or six or seven weeks.  Nominated at the Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Makeup, it was a similar story of an elderly Swedish curmudgeon that warms when exposed to an environment different than their own.  That’s why I was originally interested to see Backman’s name attached to this film, even if in the end it din’t measure up.

To the movie’s credit, August is very good in the title role.  She’s brittle and has an edge to her but is never so mean that it’s unbelievable anyone would want to make a great effort with her.  Though I question the randomness of a love interest that springs from nowhere (not that Britt-Marie can’t have a love interest, it’s the out of the blue nature of cupid’s arrow), she’s someone that others who have also experienced hardship can have a little bit of empathy for.  Perhaps that’s director Novotny (Annihilation) lending her experience as an actress in front of the camera that helps smooth Britt-Marie’s steely nature for audiences.  The remainder of the cast sadly fails to register in their cliche-ridden characters, from the plucky tyke on the football team, to the helicopter parent that wants his son’s team to win no matter what, to the disillusioned woman going blind that Britt-Marie boards with.  Of course, this woman just happens to have a wealth of football experience…but is so grumpy at her current eyesight situation that she can’t possibly come around and change her attitude.  I think you can guess the answer.

In the end, Britt-Marie Was Here, was just too formulaic for my tastes.  It was a product grown in a laboratory many moons ago that’s been used before but not used wisely or with much creativity in this experiment.  No amount of strong performances or heartfelt messages can change that.  Britt-Marie Was Here but you should be in another theater.