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Posts Tagged ‘Maggie Smith’

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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Well, with December almost half gone and the major releases of the year all but done and dusted, some might think it was time to start looking back and ruminating upon what kind of year 2015 has been, cinematically speaking. Time enough for that, though, when the festive interlude is upon us: for now, we have a look at a film which seems to spent most of the year being heavily trailed, presumably on the strength of its star. I speak of Nicholas Hytner’s adaptation of Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van.

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This is one of those films which started off as a play, which started off as an idea of Bennett’s, which started off as some things which happened to the actor and playwright in real life. If you’re at all familiar with the writing of Alan Bennett you will probably be aware that the famously diffident gentleman in question spent fifteen years with a woman living on his front drive; the woman in question not being technically homeless, but only because she was ensconced in a series of delapidated vans on his property.

Alex Jennings plays Bennett himself, while Maggie Smith plays the title character. Events unfold over a period of nearly twenty years – things open in 1970, with Bennett moving into a fairly nice house in Camden and getting acquainted with his neighbours, one of whom – sort of – includes the enigmatic, and fairly foul-smelling, Miss Shepherd, whose van meanders up and down the street in accordance with divine guidance (if she is to be believed).

I say ‘events unfold’, but not a great deal actually happens in terms of, um, things actually happening. Miss Shepherd actually moves onto the drive. Vague clues as to her past emerge (not least as a result of repeated visits by a mysterious man played by Jim Broadbent). Bennett puts the odd play on. His neighbours are half-admiring, half-dismissive of what they see as his excessive generosity. His complex relationship with his mother continues.

It is an unashamedly theatrical piece, most obviously in the device where numerous scenes actually feature two Alan Bennetts – representing the one who writes about life, and the one who lives it respectively – both of whom are played by Jennings. There’s a touch of metatextuality going on as well – not only does the ‘real’ Alan Bennett show up to watch the film being made at one point, but there’s some amusing byplay where one Bennett carps at the other.

Bennett is such a distinctive individual that one would have forgiven Jennings for being a bit intimidated by the prospect of taking him on, but he does a sterling job – he produces a very recognisable Bennett without doing an obvious impersonation. This is a key strength of the movie, for – despite the title – the movie is really much more about Bennett than anything else. His distinctively wry and understated voice fills and flavours the entire movie, taking the details of everyday life and somehow making them profound and very amusing at the same time, while the story – such as it is – is about the nature of a writer’s engagement with the world, and Bennett’s own feelings towards his mother. Is he being so charitable towards Miss Shepherd simply out of a sense of guilt? Is she a sop to his conscience in the same way she permits his neighbours to expunge their upper-middle-class guilt by taking care of her, up to a point?

This isn’t really that sort of a film, but en passant it does make some sharp and occasionally witty points about charity in modern society and how privileged metropolitan types relate to the homeless. There’s a funny, if slightly predictable scene, in which two of Bennett’s wealthy neighbours, off to the opera, chortle with amusement as they speculate as to which house Miss Shepherd’s van will end up in front of next – only to respond with horror when she settles in front of their own home. Similarly, social services turn up once every three months to give Bennett a hard time over the way he cares for the woman he has to cope with every day.

All that said, Maggie Smith is terribly prominent in this movie, and it’s a part which really lets her have some fun – I’m by no means saying she in any way goes over the top, but it’s still a very big and very rich performance, though always shaded with pathos and a strange kind of dignity. I suppose, given Smith’s international stardom and general clout, it’s not really surprising that the film should be tweaked a little to favour her – because the final act of the piece undergoes a subtle but definite change in emphasis, moving the focus from Bennett to his ‘tenant’.

I’m not sure this necessarily helps the film, though whatever ground it loses it definitely recovers by the end, with a couple of cheeky touches including a somewhat Gilliam-esque piece of CGI animation. I turned up to this movie expecting something dour and slightly miserable and worthy, but the film is actually much more than that – witty, playful, and intelligent, though not without more serious moments. I suppose some of the pleasure of it would be reduced if you didn’t actually know who Alan Bennett was, and it’s not exactly got a supercharged plot, but I still think there is more than enough going on here to provide an enjoyable couple of hours for anyone interested in a film of ideas.

 

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As you may recall, about three years ago I went to see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel on its original cinema release. One slightly noteworthy thing about this was the speed with which the showings seemed to be selling out: my companion and I planned on seeing it at the Phoenix, but even several hours ahead of start time, every seat was full, and we were obliged to relocate to the coffeeshop instead. The movie went on to recoup its budget well over ten-fold, which is why a sequel is currently doing the rounds – with, it seems to me, equally formidable success (the weekend matinee I attended was well on the way to being sold out).

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Like the original, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is directed by John Madden, and concerns the doings of a group of predominantly crinkled people living in a residential hotel in Rajasthan. Muriel (Maggie Smith) has been redeemed from her former state as a comedy bigot, and is now a comedy curmudgeon who is helping to manage the hotel. Owner/co-manager Sonny (Dev Patel) is looking to expand, but his impending nuptials are a source of stress and distraction. Douglas (Bill Nighy) and Evelyn (Judi Dench) are proceeding with an intense (and intensely British) non-romance. Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup have come back as well, and have their own, rather less well-developed plotlines as well. The big new addition for the sequel is Richard Gere (looking not unlike Judi Dench himself these days, it must be said), as an American staying at the hotel whose agenda may or may not be mysterious and significant.

And… well, you know, I saw this one with my folks and they were of the quite sensible opinion that if you hadn’t seen the first movie, you might struggle a bit with this one. It’s not that the plot here is such a seamless continuation, although I suppose you could possibly make a case for that. It’s that the film trades so heavily on the affection established in the first instalment. It’s all the same lovely people again! the film seems to be shouting, delightedly. They’re all doing pretty much exactly the same things! How wonderful is this?

The plot is, to be generous to it, about as underpowered as a tuk-tuk and consists of… well, not very much happening, but it happens (or not) in a very warm and life-affirming way. In an attempt to provide a few new ideas and a bit of incident, the film draws on some interesting choices of inspiration: a subplot about Sonny believing a guest to be a hotel inspector and fawning on him outrageously inevitably recalls Fawlty Towers, while a Ronnie Barker comedy playlet appears to have donated a plotline about one of the guests accidentally putting out a contract on his partner.

Most of the comedy is broad, most of the more poignant and character-based stuff is a little predictable, India remains a good-looking theme park with no other apparent purpose than to provide well-off white people with moments of personal epiphany, with the main Indian character a comic goon: in short, it is all pretty much identical to the first one, with the difference that Tom Wilkinson isn’t in it (for fairly obvious reasons). As you may be gathering, this is a sequel which differs from the original by the minimum amount possible.

In fact, this almost feels like a film shying away from actually doing a story as much as possible. There are inevitably some wedding- and hotel inspector-related shenanigans, but in terms of the main characters, the script really seems to be digging its heels in. Perhaps the Nighy/Dench relationship gets resolved, but not to the point that we actually see them being meaningfully intimate with each other. In a similar way, every single flag the film sends up about one character telegraphs the fact that they are heading for a terminal exit. And yet this doesn’t come to pass. All the signs end up leading nowhere. Perhaps the film-makers decided it would just be too downbeat an ending – or it may just be that they want to preserve the status quo as far as possible, in case a third sequel proves viable.

I wouldn’t rule it out, because for all that I have been pretty lukewarm about this film – if not actually negative – it’s actually incredibly difficult to be actively nasty about it, simply because it is stuffed with charming, likeable actors doing their very best to give some rather trite dialogue and underpowered jokes genuine impact. For the most part, they actually manage it. Maggie Smith can steal scenes in her sleep; Judi Dench can do beautifully subtle nuance while anaesthetised; Bill Nighy could probably do a technically astonishing double-take from beyond the grave.

This is not a great film. I get the sense that if the film-makers could have got away with simply re-releasing the original film under a new title, they would, and that this was the next best option. But it’s not actually a bad one. It is totally innocuous, very easy on the eye, and doing a sterling job of keeping many of the UK’s finest actors gainfully employed. I just find it very difficult to get excited or enthusiastic about it. Hey ho.

 

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When I was living in Asia, I spent a lot of time in the company of other ex-pats, and most of the time this was a very enjoyable experience. The only thing that sometimes angered me was the fact that some of my fellow visitors appeared to be treating the country in which we were living as some kind of vast theme park, existing more as a venue for them to have excitingly new and daring experiences than as a real place occupied by real people with real lives. To me this is about as bad as a blanket rejection of any kind of foreign experience, and it verges on the worst kind of poverty tourism.

I was reminded of all of this stuff by John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, in which a Magnificent Seven of veteran British acting talent is assembled for an undertaking which is intent on warming our hearts or dying in the attempt. Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton and Ronald Pickup play a collection of ageing English types, who are forced by the generally crappiness of modern life to relocate to a retirement hotel in Rajasthan, run by ambitious but clueless entrepreneur Sonny (Dev Patel). They are all there for various different reasons – Dench has been widowed, Wilkinson is on a deeply personal quest, Nighy and Wilton are financially embarrassed following some bad decisions, Smith is there for a hip replacement, and Pickup and Imrie are there seeking to put it about a bit. Needless to say their exposure to Indian life leads all of them to reassess their lives, view the world in a different light, etc etc etc.

Well, the cast is the major draw of this movie, which seems to be doing rather well – I couldn’t get into a showing at the arthouse and had to go and see it at one of the local multiplexes (recently converted from proper cinema to coffee-shop-with-movies-showing-in-the-back), which also seemed to be doing jolly good business. That a movie with these big names involved should do well is not a surprise – what’s slightly bemusing is how they got them all in the first place.

This is just a very long-winded way (sorry) of saying that the script is nowhere near as good as actors this talented deserve. Most of the best bits are in the trailer, and practically all of the really funny bits. I didn’t laugh much at all through most of this movie, and, to be perfectly honest, was slightly disturbed that other people did. A lot of the mirth-provoking material early on comes from Maggie Smith’s character, who is basically just a nasty bigot. I am sure the film-makers’ defence would be that she’s a silly comedy nasty bigot and that people are actually laughing at her rather than with her. I’m not so sure, I sensed a degree of warmth towards her coming from around me. Needless to say she is rehabilitated by her subcontinental experiences, along with everyone else.

Once everyone pitches up in India the film does become rather episodic, with some of the cast members dropping out of sight for quite long periods. Some of these threads are rather insubstantial – to be honest, the whole film is really incredibly slight when you step back and look at it properly. So we get Judi Dench giving matronly (and not at all patronising) advice to the workers in the world’s least believeable call centre, Ronald Pickup and Celia Imrie on the prowl, Tom Wilkinson doing something I’d better not spoil, Maggie Smith becoming less of a nasty bigot, and so on, prior to a vaguely mechanical and definitely predictable conclusion.

A lot of this is broad and knockabout stuff, not especially engaging but not actually offensive either, on its own terms, but the problem with this material is that it gets in the way of genuinely interesting and thoughtful stuff about some of the other characters. As one might expect, Judi Dench is particularly good in a slightly heavier role. However, it’s Tom Wilkinson who is the best thing in the movie: there’s a moment where Wilkinson gently expresses his incomprehension at another character’s refusal to engage with India in any positive way that is simply terrific. On the other hand, Bill Nighy really gets very little to do compared to the others, which was a bit disappointing.

This sort of leads us to one of the issues with the film, which is that some of these actors simply don’t look old enough to be considering life in a retirement community – Celia Imrie is still in her 50s, for crying out loud. More important, however, is the fact that the film is supposedly set in India, but could just as easily be occurring in Narnia.

If we’re discussing modern British movies about India, then two words slouch implacably towards the conversation and those words are Slumdog Millionaire. Dev Patel is in both movies (though here he’s playing much more of a stereotype), which makes the comparison virtually obligatory. Slumdog Millionaire is set in India, but treats it as a real place, where complex people live complicated, difficult lives: it doesn’t indulge in spurious exoticism. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel does exactly that – in this movie India is essentially a plot device, exposure to which allows the characters to indulge in a bit of cathartic self-realisation. Most of the Brits in this film are hardly rounded individuals, but they get a better deal than the Indians, who are virtually all ciphers.

And as a result, detached from reality and mostly bereft of any genuine sense of loss or pain, the film doesn’t earn the life-affirming pay-offs it’s clearly angling to achieve. The cast is very good, and mostly do the best they can with what they’re given: but what they’re given is rather ‘safe’ comedy and predictable, Richard Curtis-inflected emotional beats. One emerges with the overwhelming impression that, for these characters, India’s importance is solely as a catalyst for Emotional Growth – and in the modern world, as a basis for a movie, that’s surely every bit as blinkered and outdated as any of the attitudes we’re supposed to laugh at when they’re produced by Maggie Smith’s character. A slight movie, made worth seeing by the actors, Tom Wilkinson in particular. But only just.

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