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 ~ The Aftermath


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Post World War II, a British colonel and his wife are assigned to live in Hamburg during the post-war reconstruction, but tensions arise with the German who previously owned the house.

Stars: Alexander Skarsgård, Keira Knightley, Jason Clarke, Flora Thiemann, Kate Phillips, Alexander Scheer, Tom Bell

Director: James Kent

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: You’d be forgiven if you glanced at the poster for The Aftermath and thought it was going to be more prestigious than it actually turns out being. I mean, you have period dramas #1 go-to-gal Keira Knightly front and center looking striking flanked by the brooding stares of Jason Clarke and Alexander Skarsgård. If you did further investigation you’d find out it was a post-WWII drama adapted from a bestseller which adds a little more fuel to the thinking that this would be a decent bit of counter-programming for a discerning adult audience as we move into the spring movie season. Alas, despite some handsome production values and the presence of the aforementioned stars, The Aftermath comes up far short of being anything to get excited about. Just a few steps up from a television soapy melodrama, it’s a strikingly ordinary bit of filmmaking that doesn’t bother to uncover the rich layers suggested by the source material or the performances the actors are trying to give.

Based on Rhidian Brook’s 2013 novel of the same name, the film opens with Rachael (Knightley, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms) traveling to Hamburg to meet her husband Lewis (Clarke, All I See Is You), a colonel in the British Armed Forces. The couple lost their only child during the war as the result of a Nazi attack so Rachael traveling to the heart of Germany is anything but a welcome journey for the still-grieving mother. As she travels by train, she sees the devastating impact the war has had not just on the physical structures but on the emotions of the people that were left behind. Now, after its defeat, the country has begun the arduous process of rebuilding their cities under the watchful eye of foreign nationals.

Lewis has commandeered a sprawling mansion for his military operation in Hamburg, which displaces the owner of the house a widowed German architect Stefan (Skarsgård, The Legend of Tarzan) and his young daughter, Susan (Flora Thiemann). Surprisingly, instead of fully asking Stefan to leave, Lewis attempts to forge new lines of compassion and allows the father and daughter to stay in the attic. This drives a deeper wedge between Lewis and Rachael, who can’t believe her husband is taking pity on anyone that might have been a Nazi sympathizer, though Stefan claims he was not. Eventually, Rachael begins to soften not only to Susan but to Stefan and before you know it…there’s a love triangle afoot.

Having not read the book, I’m not sure how many liberties director James Kent and screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse took with the source material. Certainly there’s a decent set-up for a steamy romance between Germany and Great Britain but it’s handled in such a paint-by-numbers manner that there’s no thrill to any of it. At first, Rachael can’t stand Stefan but then she gets to know him and, guess what, she starts to like him! To their credit, Knightely and Skarsgård do their darndest to drum up some sparks but their early friction fails to lead to a bonfire of passion when they get down to it. Skarsgård especially looks totally lost and unsure how to handle a character that should be more complex than the screenwriters make him out to be. Only Clarke manages to work his way toward something interesting, presenting a man trying to forget the painful memories of his past by losing himself in the present.

The Aftermath may turn out to be one of those films you make time for on a sick day when you want a starry drama but don’t feel like investing too much in anything happening on screen. You could honestly fall asleep for part of the movie and wake-up without losing much in the way of plot. Some movies are slow-burns, this one is just slow.