Movie Review ~ Downton Abbey: A New Era

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The year is 1927. The Dowager Countess of Grantham inherits a villa in the south of France from an old friend at the same time a filmmaker gets permission from Lady Mary to shoot a moving picture at Downton Abbey
Stars: Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Raquel Cassidy, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery, Kevin Doyle, Joanne Froggatt, Michael Fox, Harry Hadden-Paton, Robert James-Collier, Allen Leech, Phyllis Logan, Elizabeth McGovern, Sophie McShera, Tuppence Middleton, Lesley Nicol, Douglas Reith, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Penelope Wilton, Hugh Dancy, Laura Haddock, Nathalie Baye, Dominic West, Jonathan Zaccaï
Director: Simon Curtis
Rated: PG
Running Length: 125 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Coming off its monumentally successful five-year run in 2015, Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes promised its audience clamoring for more upstairs/downstairs tales surrounding the fictionalized titular manse that a movie was in the works.  It took four years, but the 2019 film Downtown Abbey was a perfectly filling bit of big-screen fun that ultimately felt like an extended television show episode.  The creators didn’t raise the stakes any higher than necessary, and while some hint of finality was suggested for a few characters that might not have wanted to return should another chapter be ordered up, the door was left ajar for any and all to return.

Return they all do a mere three years later for Downtown Abbey: A New Era, and this time Fellows and new director Simon Curtis (Woman in Gold) have done what the first one didn’t want to bother with, shake things up a bit.  With its production that seemed to drop out of nowhere amid post-pandemic start-ups, there was a nice amount of anticipation for this one because it targets the same group that has been an elusive get at movie theaters for the last several years.  After all this time, would this PG-rated continuation of the hit series coax them out of their homes and back into cinemas?

I’d wager a bet that the same audiences that turned out to make the first film reach nearly 200 million at the box office will venture out for a matinee of this one. However, they may first wonder why all the rainy English countryside inhabitants are so tawny and tan.  For a while, I thought they might want to call the film DownTAN Abbey instead because of actors like Hugh Bonneville’s (visibly slimmed down) golden glow. If you’re like me and didn’t take the time to re-watch the first film before showing up, Fellowes and Curtis have demonstrated good manners and included a nice recap narrated by Kevin Doyle’s Joseph Molesley. 

We’re nearing the end of the 1920s, and wedding bells are ringing for former chauffeur and current estate manager Tom Branson (Allen Leech, Bohemian Rhapsody) just as Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith, Quartet), receives the news she has been left a villa in the south of France.  Unable to travel to France herself, Robert (Bonneville, Paddington) and Cora (Elizabeth McGovern, Ordinary People) accompany honeymooning Tom, his new wife, along with Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), and her husband to visit Violet’s new property, allowing the younger set to find out more about the mysterious inheritance in the process.

Meanwhile, back at Downton, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery, Non-Stop) reluctantly agrees to let a film crew make a movie in the family home after figuring she can put the money they are offering toward repairs the property desperately needs.  With Mary’s husband away (a convenience that is explainable at the outset but downright preposterous by the end), the director (Hugh Dancy, Late Night) takes an interest in their host, eventually getting her more than a little involved in the production. At the same time, the stars of the film (Laura Haddock, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Dominic West, Tomb Raider) each make different impressions on the dedicated staff at Downtown. 

Shifting directing responsibilities to Curtis (McGovern’s real-life husband) from Michael Engler was wise. While Engler oversaw the first film with an assured hand, he perhaps brought too much of a television eye to the feature film.  Having directed numerous episodes of Downton Abbey, Engler’s movie just felt like more of the same, however welcome it was at the time.  Curtis gives the film some stamina and speed, though if anything, it’s Fellowes that lets the audience down a bit with plotlines straight out of Singin’ in the Rain and more than a few strange detours that, in hindsight, are just emotional misdirects.

Downton Abbey: A New Era ushers in more robust filmmaking, script quibbles aside.  We’re getting close to periods in history when the glitz and glamour that made the series so appealing at first will need to come to an end, and that’s when the real test of audience devotion will take place.  Wartime dramas are a dime a dozen, but what made Downtown Abbey so unique was its dreamy days before war factored in.  You can be sure there are more Downton Abbey films on the horizon, and I wouldn’t rule out another entire series to come along one of these years either. 

Movie Review ~ The Good Liar


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Career con artist Roy Courtnay can hardly believe his luck when he meets well-to-do widow Betty McLeish online. As Betty opens her home and life to him, Roy is surprised to find himself caring about her, turning what should be a cut-and-dry swindle into the most treacherous tightrope walk of his life.

Stars: Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Russell Tovey, Jim Carter, Mark Lewis Jones, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson

Director: Bill Condon

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  When you know you’re in good hands, it’s easy to settle back in your seat at a movie theater.  That’s why looking over the cast and crew of The Good Liar the other day I was able to get comfortable early on because I just had an inkling this would be one I didn’t have to fret much over.  Two iconic actors starring in a movie for a Oscar-winning director based on an international bestselling thriller adapted by a MN-connected screenwriter I quite like – you are speaking my cinematic language with perfect pronunciation.  Add in my general craving for something sophisticated and, y’know, adult and I was primed for a sly con movie that would have the usual twists and turns that came with the genre.

Now I’ve seen the trailer for The Good Liar several times over the past few months and more than a few key moments have been shown already so I’d advise you not to take another look before seeing this or avert your eyes if it comes on the telly before you get to the theater.  What’s nice to report is that, for once, the marketing team has elected to omit a key piece of the puzzle and that’s what makes The Good Liar such a fine treat to receive in the middle of a shaky November at the movies.  Instead of telegraphing what audiences should expect to see, they’ve left it for you to find out if you choose to venture into this adaptation of Nicholas Searle’s acclaimed debut novel from 2016.  If you do, you’ll be in for a fine ride featuring excellent performances in a movie that comes with crisp edges and is cool to the touch.

After meeting on a dating website for seniors, Ray (Ian McKellen, All Is True) and Betty (Helen Mirren, Woman in Gold) hit it off right away at their first dinner and strike up a friendship.  She’s looking for companionship after losing her husband the year before and he’s looking for…something different.  Well, not at first.  At first he seems genuinely a little interested in her as a potential love interest, but once he finds out Betty is sitting on a hefty nest egg, he moves in for the con and brings along his partner (Jim Carter, Downton Abbey) with plans to swindle his new friend.  As Ray and Betty’s friendship deepens, so does his ability to charm her and it’s to the script’s great credit that it doesn’t immediately turn Ray into an obvious money-hungry sociopath that Betty should be able to see right through.

That’s not the extent of Ray’s criminal dealings though, as he’s also involved with another scheme involving businessmen investing in a fake real estate corporation.  Opting to lay low until that blows over, he moves in with Betty, under the disapproving eye of her increasingly suspicious grandson (Russell Tovey, Muppets Most Wanted) who knows something is off about Ray but can’t put his finger on exactly what.  Driving a sly wedge between grandmother and grandson, Ray starts to separate Betty from her resources of safety until he’s practically all she has to rely on.  As Ray grows closer to Betty and gains her trust, his plan starts to come together…but when the time comes will he be able to go through with it and wipe her bank account clean?   Will his feelings get the best of him?  Or is there another player in the game that no one is yet aware of?

The answers to all these questions and more are laid out cleanly in the graceful screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher (Mr. Holmes) which is generous to both Mirren and McKellen in the way it allows them to play each scene without rushing.  The same goes for director Bill Condon (Beauty and the Beast) who takes his time setting the film up in its first hour as we are introduced to Ray’s duality as a slick (and surprisingly nasty) crook one moment and a fragile aged elder leaning on Betty’s compassion in another.  There’s a tendency to let the victim of these stories look like a of fool for not seeing through this ruse but you get the sense in Mirren’s performance she knows Ray’s not always telling the whole truth but also that she has maybe emerged from a marriage where certain things went unsaid as well.

The final act of The Good Liar contains a few satisfyingly head-turning game changers and I didn’t see all of them coming…at least not the exact direction they were coming from.  You may have an inkling what corner the movie is about to go around but with Hatcher keeping Searle’s secrets so well he easily throws you off the scent, and that’s where the movie becomes less of a thriller and more of a cat and mouse drama that Mirren and McKellen revel in.  Both are playing against their perceived type here, he less as the warm-hearted gentlemen he appears to be and she far removed from the ballsy dame we know she is.  That’s fun to watch and seems like it was fun for them to perform.

If there’s one thing I’d change about The Good Liar is that it didn’t need to be quite so hard of a film.  Certain elements I’d agree have to play out against a backdrop of vicious crimes for specific plot tricks to work but there are parts of the movie that take place in strip clubs for no real purpose and key scenes of brutality that feel out of place.  While it contributes some element of surprise, it didn’t feel like an overall value add to the story Condon and company set out to tell.  Thankfully, any inclination to turn a pivotal moment into a bloody mess was avoided and the film as a whole retained its level of maturity when it very well could have sold its soul for cheap shock value.

There are certain actors some people would pay to hear read the telephone book and I honestly don’t think I’d be happy just watching Mirren or McKellen be stationary going through the alphabet.  What they’ve shown in The Good Liar is that they’re keen on taking on roles that require them to take action and get their hands dirty, not remain sedentary and stodgy.  Using their bodies as well as their trained voices, they’re actors that are fascinating to watch teamed in a project that holds your attention with ease.  If only more movies were made with this amount of class, patience, and trust in the audience.

Movie Review ~ Downton Abbey

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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.