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Posts Tagged ‘Jim Carter’

A £194 million return on a £20 million budget, when combined with a built-in audience and established name recognition, means only one thing: guaranteed sequel! So here we are with Downton Abbey: A New Era, directed by Simon Curtis, written by Julian Fellowes (the creator of the TV show) and starring all the usual suspects.

I find myself sort of wondering about what it is exactly that makes this a ‘new era’, as to me it all looks very similar to the old era, or at least the first film. I was taken along to see this by the family when it came out in 2019, and – to save you the bother of going back and re-reading the original review – found it rather perplexing. This is mainly because I’ve never seen an episode of the TV show, which is obviously a disadvantage when it comes to a film series which is essentially a direct continuation of it.

The general sense of bemusement persisted as the new film got underway. It opens with a wedding which basically the entire principal cast attend – with a few exceptions (genial peer Hugh Bonneville, demonic matriarch Maggie Smith, redoubtable butler Jim Carter) I had no recollection of who any of them were. But the thing to remember about Downton is that all you really need to understand is the key division between the toffs upstairs and the plebs downstairs. The toffs are delighted being waited on hand and foot; the plebs seem equally delighted to be doing the waiting, though the reasons why are more obscure.

Paying close attention to the details of the film reveals we are in the year 1928, where the two main plotlines are jolted into motion by a letter from a French lawyer, revealing that Maggie Smith has inherited a villa within spitting distance of the Riviera from a mysterious man from her past, and a request from the film company British Lion to make a movie on location at the mansion itself. (Dearie me, from producing and distributing films of the calibre of The Third Man and The Wicker Man to providing background verisimilitude in a Downton Abbey movie – sic transit gloria mundi.)

Well, mainly because the mansion needs a new roof, they agree to let all the ghastly film-making people move in for a month, but only because many of the characters will be off in France discussing the new property with its former owners, not all of whom are particularly inclined to honour the bequest. Needless to say all the below-stairs plebs get tremendously excited by the prospect of mixing with film stars (Dominic West and Laura Haddock do the honours) and even sensible-but-quietly-naughty Lady Something-or-Other lets herself get dragged into helping the production out. Meanwhile, the visitors to France struggle to cope with their alien continental ways while revelations about Maggie Smith’s past threaten to bring on an existential crisis for the earl himself…

It’s possible that the makers of the first Downton Abbey movie got a bit stung by criticisms that it was not really a film after all, but basically a double-length episode of the TV show released into cinemas. Certainly one of the trailers for the new one banged on at great length about how ‘cinematic’ it is, and how it cries out for the big screen experience. Well, there’s certainly something you could describe as cinematic about Downton Abbey: The New Era, even if it’s just the fact that it cheerfully knocks off elements from a bona fide movie like Singin’ in the Rain – there’s a plotline about an actress who looks fabulous but doesn’t have the voice for a career in talkies which feels awfully familiar. The everyone-goes-on-a-foreign-holiday storyline, on the other hand, is more of a staple of less distinguished fare like the big-screen versions of Are You Being Served? and The Inbetweeners (which Laura Haddock was also in, funnily enough).

Comparisons to the ignoble tradition of the big-screen sitcom spin-off movie seem to me to be justified, as one of the odd things about Downton Abbey: The New Era is the general tone of the thing. We’re talking, essentially, about a soap opera, which in theory should have a mixture of tones – lighter storylines mixed with more serious material. And in theory this is happening here too. But the strange thing is that everything feels like it’s being pitched as comedy: broad, knockabout comedy in the case of the plebs, something marginally more refined and sophisticated in the case of the toffs. At one point a character is given cause to doubt their parentage, their heritage, their very identity, a moment of absolute shock. And (at the screening we went to) it got a laugh. Someone dies, and – despite a bizarre, bathos-laden moment where someone performs a soliloquy from King Lear – their death scene is built around a series of zingy one-liners.

Some of the cast members are good enough to make this stuff work, but a lot of the time I think the film is trading on the existing affection the audience is presumed to have for these characters: there is, needless to say, a degree of sentimentality going on throughout. Not much effort is made to keep things accessible for newcomers, anyway – beautiful scenery and architecture only goes so far, and the structure of the film feels odd. I expected the film to start wrapping up when everyone came back from France, but it continues for a good half-hour longer wrapping up various plot elements and dealing with a whole new development that, again, won’t necessarily mean much to new viewers.

Although you do wonder what the target audience for this film actually is. I watched it with someone who has requested their identity be kept a secret, and their view – and I feel the need to stress that they really liked this film a lot more than me – was that it was ‘like a film made for people with dementia’. I know exactly what they meant – time after time, once a scene has concluded the next scene features a bunch of the supporting characters convening as a kind of Greek chorus to tell each other, in considerable detail, what has just happened in the previous scene, discuss the significance of it, and wonder about what’s going to happen next. ‘On-the-nose’ barely begins to do justice to the kind of dialogue involved in these interludes, and it’s not as if the plot is even that complicated in the first place.

Then again, as I suggested when writing about the first film, this is all an exercise in comfortable familiarity and more-of-the-same. It’s a Downton Abbey movie, and the Downton Abbey part of that formulation is vastly more important than the movie part. I thought this film was interestingly weird, but it would be a stretch to say that I honestly enjoyed any of it. Then again, I’m not sure I was ever really supposed to.

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Cinema is an emotional art form, and it can make you feel many things: awe, excitement, wonder, anger, compassion, terror. What doesn’t happen quite so much is a trip to the movies making you feel young, but I am happy to report that this is the effect that going to see Bill Condon’s The Good Liar had on me. I should make clear that this has relatively little to do with the quality of the film itelf, and much more to do with the fact that I went to a weekday matinee showing. It’s very unusual, these days, for me to be the youngest person at the showing of a movie (unless I’m the only one there), but I felt positively spring chicken-esque on this occasion. There was a very good turn-out for the movie (far more people than were at the teatime showing of Midway the previous day), and all in all it was an interesting opportunity to see how the more mature generation approach film-watching etiquette. So it was that I settled down to enjoy the new movie, doing my best to ignore the faint whistle of hearing-aid feedback, the less faint murmuring of people attempting to explain the plot to each other, the flashing and buzzing of un-switched-off smartphones, and the flagrant disregard of the allocated seating system.

Why so many oldies at this particular movie? Well, I suspect it’s mainly because of the two leads, Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren, who are both there or thereabouts when it comes to much-loved national treasure status, in addition to knocking on a bit themselves. One of the many slightly odd things about this film is that it does appear to be pitching very much to the older generation, but on the other hand it also contains a lot of things that this same generation reputedly have issues with, specifically graphic violence and fruity language.

The Good Liar opens with both McKellen and Mirren joining an online dating website for older folk, and it is almost immediately made clear that neither of them is being absolutely honest in their responses. But they seem to hit it off, even after they both come clean about the fact that they are not, as advertised, Brian and Estelle, but actually Roy and Betty: he is a distinguished gent with a vague, military background, while she is a former Oxford academic now enjoying life as a rich widow. They have a very pleasant lunch together and then go their separate ways, Betty leaving with her grandson (Russell Tovey).

The movie stays with Roy, however, which if nothing else allows us to enjoy more of McKellen’s performance. This is shaping up to be something really quite special, with the actor at his most sly and impish. Rather than toddling off home, he heads to Stringfellow’s nightclub, where it soon becomes apparent he is a professional fraudster engaged on a very slick long con with his partner Vincent (Jim Carter). His involvement with Betty is obviously also part of the build-up to another swindle.

But as the con proceeds and Roy does his best to dispel the suspicions of Betty’s grandson, it almost seems that he is starting to have genuine feelings for his intended victim. Could it be that the old rogue is finally growing a conscience and beginning to have second thoughts about his plan…?

Well, you know, Bill Condon is one of those people with a shockingly variable track record – he wrote and directed the rather good Gods and Monsters, back in the 1990s, and more recently was behind the camera for The Fifth Estate and Mr Holmes, both of which I thought were pretty decent movies. However – and here you must imagine the authorial voice of the blog taking on its gravest and most sombre tone – the case for the prosecution is arguably much more significant. Not only was Condon the perpetrator of the final couple of Twilight movies, he was also one of the writers of the bafflingly popular diversity barn-dance The Greatest Showman. So the question must be: which way is this particular movie going to turn out?

Confusingly, the answer to this may be ‘both’, as while The Good Liar is utterly ridiculous, it is also highly entertaining, although probably not in quite the way the film-makers had in mind. Condon and his associates were probably aiming to produce a gripping and unpredictable thriller, with quite a hard, dark edge to it. This they have not managed to achieve, because you would have to be a fairly undemanding viewer not to figure out which way this film is going well in advance of the denouement. On the other hand, the film does feature a lot of very good actors who are clearly having a whale of a time having fun with some rather ripe material. McKellen, for instance, is front and centre for most of the movie, and his twinkliness and smarminess are both set to maximum throughout. This is such a big performance – I would say he was overacting, without actually being hammy – that it does almost unbalance the movie.

Of course, I suspect the reason McKellen is being quite so extravagant with his performance is because he realises the film needs it in order to function. The film, as mentioned, does aspire to a considerable level of twisty-turniness, but the twists and turns are generally quite absurd and impossible to take seriously. There’s no point trying to be subtle and naturalistic in a story as daft as this one: you may as well go all in and at least try to have some fun with it. This is the approach that McKellen (and, eventually, Mirren) appear to be going for.

As an exercise in outrageous camp, The Good Liar passes the time very entertainingly, although I must say again that some key plot developments are very predictable. There is also the issue that the film was obviously conceived as a serious drama with a dark and quite vicious edge to it: there are moments of significant violence which jar very strongly with the overall tone of the movie. (I should also mention that the film indicates that the British obsession with events during and just after the Second World War also shows no signs of abating.) There is also something which feels a little incorrect about the structure of the climax: the thing about a good twist is that you should really be able to work it out in advance, and in this case that simply isn’t true.

Nevertheless, it’s a spry and fairly slick movie, and I suppose the nature of the story means that the predictability of some of the plot isn’t really a problem (it also compensates for the absurdity of much of the rest of it). I enjoyed watching the actors do their stuff, even if I was probably laughing in the wrong places and for the wrong reasons most of the time.

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There was a time, a few years back, when half the new movies coming out of Hollywood seemed to be adaptations of old TV shows to the medium: Mission: Impossible, Charlie’s Angels, The A-Team. This sort of thing has been going on for decades, of course, and shows no signs of letting up (the Mission: Impossible franchise is now Tom Cruise’s most reliable revenue stream, while we are threatened with a new Charlie’s Angels movie before the year is out), but it certainly felt like something of a peak when obscurities like The Mod Squad and SWAT were being dusted off for a big screen outing. Such is the nature of modern cinema, I suppose: there’s currently no bigger risk than originality.

British attempts at this sort of thing go back nearly as far: in fact, back in the 1950s, Val Guest and Hammer Films were actually making films based on radio shows. The British big-screen spin-off is usually a cash-in, made while the TV show in question is still a going concern or at least a recent hit, and most of them have been based on comedy programmes. The results have been extremely variable – some of the Monty Python films are regarded as genuine classics, and the two Inbetweeners films made a stack of money, but on the other hand the Are You Being Served? film is practically a shorthand summary of the many reasons why this sort of thing is a bad idea.

Of course, they have done movies based on drama series, too: there have been a number of Sweeney films, a big-screen Callan, and (not that long ago) a Spooks movie. Appealing to a rather different demographic, however, is the current release of Michael Engler’s movie version of Downton Abbey. I don’t just mean that this film features fewer men in overcoats delivering knuckle sandwiches to each other than the typical Sweeney film; Downton Abbey, whatever you think of it, has become a globally successful entertainment, even to the point where they do jokes about it in Marvel movies. It may be a few years since it was actually on TV, but the calculation seems to have been that an audience exists that will be prepared to leave the house and pay to watch what is essentially a new instalment (the $90 million return so far on a $20 million budget suggests this was a shrewd assessment).

Full disclosure: I never watched Downtown Abbey on the telly and never felt like I was missing out on much, either; I’m not saying I would have walked five miles and stuck my head down a sewer in order to avoid watching it, but it’s just not my cup of tea. However, I did find myself taken along to watch Engler’s film by various family members who were more than passingly familiar with it. In brief, they all found it to be inoffensively engaging and occasionally rather amusing, and if you are a die-hard Downtonite this may be all you need to know.

The film opens with a lavish credits sequence concerning a letter being written and delivered, which kind of sets the tone for the high-octane thrills which follow. It turns out that the King and Queen are about to embark on a trip round the country and are intent on spending the night at Downton Abbey. Needless to say, this sends everyone into a proper tizzy, from genial good-egg Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) to the assistant cook (Sophie McShera).

It seems like everyone has their own particular concerns as the royal visit approaches: is the best silver going to be polished correctly? Can the boilers be relied upon to keep functioning? Will there be enough chairs for everyone? Primarily, though, the Downton domestic staff are somewhat peeved to learn that they are to be displaced by the King’s own servants for the duration of his time at the house. Can they really be expected to take this kind of treatment?

Mixed in with all this (and there are a great many other plotlines, some of them very minor indeed) is a subplot about an attempt to assassinate the King. I would hazard a guess that in 90% of films, this would be the main focus of the script, and the climax would see the domestics showing their quality by coming together to save the King’s life, a deed for which they would receive due gratitude and respect. However, this is not the kind of level on which Downton Abbey operates. The assassination plotline is resolved quite early on, without a great deal of fuss, and everyone carries on as they were for the rest of the film. The message is clear: this is not a film about tension and excitement. It’s a film about using the right knife for the fish course and knowing your place in Downton’s labyrinthine social ecology.

It’s all a bit like HG Wells’ The Time Machine, with the feckless but presentable upper classes wandering about in self-absorbed bemusement, while the much more capable domestic staff get on with ensuring that everything actually works – although, once again, there is never any real prospect of Mr Carson the butler (Jim Carter) actually eating the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), as that would be far too surprising.

Of course, to say all this is to miss the point of a film like Downton Abbey, which is absolutely not intended to surprise the audience – what it is there for is to deliver more of exactly the same sort of thing as the TV series on which it is based. (I get the sense of the movie jumping through hoops in order to ensure all the main players are in their customary positions, even though some of them departed them at the end of the show’s run.)

However, as a newcomer I couldn’t help noticing a number of things. It is true that the film contains a number of very capable actors, Bonneville, Carter and Smith most prominent amongst them – on the other hand, such is the diffuse and episodic nature of the film that none of them actually get much to do beyond simply showing up and doing their usual business. More problematically, from my point of view at least, is the essentially complacent nature of the film. The main thrust of the plot concerns a group of people who are utterly determined to go out of their way to be as servile and deferent as they possibly can: the film doesn’t so much let a particularly rigid form of the British class system go unquestioned, as swooningly celebrate it.

Of course, I suppose much of the charm of Downton for its many fans is the very fact that it depicts a picture-book version of a world that hasn’t so much vanished as never existed in the first place (who was it who said that progressive escapism tends to look to the future, while the reactionary kind is set in the past?) – somewhere that is clean, and essentially untroubled, where everyone knows their place and sticks to it. (The film is not entirely backwards-looking, but a storyline about the lives of gay men in the 1920s feels laboriously crowbarred in.)

Perhaps this is why the focus of the film remains so firmly on the continuing characters, with the newcomers in distinctly secondary roles even when they are played by people who are relatively famous (Stephen Campbell Moore shows up, along with Geraldine James and Tuppence Middleton). The rules and regulations of Downton Abbey supercede conventional movie-making concerns. In the end it only barely feels like a genuine film at all; it could be just a particularly lavish and extended episode of the TV show. Which was surely the idea; but whether this is the film’s biggest strength or weakness is a matter of perspective.

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