Tag Archives: Maggie Smith

Downton Abbey (2019, Michael Engler)

I’m trying to decide if Downton Abbey is wholly incomprehensible to someone who didn’t watch the television show, or if they’d appreciate it. Julian Fellowes’s screenplay is very tidy, no loose strings, always the right mix between A, B, and C plots, so one can at least appreciate the pacing without knowing exactly why it’s so especially funny when footman Kevin Doyle makes a fool of himself in front of the King and Queen, but one would still get the surface humor. Downton’s got a bunch of great surface humor, including Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton, which is a rather impressive feat for Fellowes, Smith, Wilton, and director Engler because the film doesn’t do any setup. There’s not just very little ground situation establishing going on, there’s none. The movie opens with the hook—the King and Queen send a letter to Downton Abbey, let’s watch the letter get there via 1920s transportation, oh, how lovely and quaint, thanks to Ben Smithard’s gorgeous photography (they go Panavision for the movie, which is full of lingering shots on the country house itself, also showing off the increased helicopter budget)—plus the letter getting to the town and the familiar sights before the house itself. Maybe, with the quaintness, the lovely photography, and John Lunn’s always very effective theme… an unfamiliar could get in the right mood.

Because while it’s impressive how successfully Fellowes writes the almost two hours, with the fifteen or twenty person principal cast, it’s not a surprise he’d accomplish it. Fellowes wrote many years of the show, including some extended length holiday specials. Downton Abbey: The Movie feels very much like a very special holiday episode. There’s not a lot of progress from when the show ended, at least not in terms of new cast. There aren’t any new regulars, there are a lot of previously emphasized, sort of unresolved subplots examined—Sophie McShera still hasn’t decided if she’s getting married, Robert James-Collier’s still miserable in the closet, and… um. Okay, maybe there’s not a lot on that front. But James-Collier gets one of the bigger B plots, and McShera’s got a solid C. The only reason James-Collier’s subplot, involving actual romance for him, isn’t an A plot is Fellowes keeps it on low until the third act when he needs some drama to juxtapose with the chaos at the royal dinner. It’s a very smart script, just self-indulgent enough, just pleasant enough.

Is it particularly ambitious? No. The biggest A plot—besides everyone in the movie preparing for the royal visit in one way or another—is Allen Leech. Leech gets to do the “Irishman under investigation” subplot and he gets to do a “maybe the widower finally move on” subplot. Laura Carmichael gets a solid B plot. Michelle Dockery, however, is seated at the “here to support other people’s plots with none of my own” table, along with Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern. There are good moments for everyone and all the acting is good, they just don’t get anything special to do. No heavy lifting.

Though Dockery does get a little at the end, as she’s the one who gets to have the big moment with Maggie Smith. In its last few minutes, Downton: The Movie unintentionally reveals its great potential would not have been as an extended, Cinemascope holiday special, but as something from Smith’s perspective. The ambition isn’t there though. The film’s got just the right amount of fan service as well as new material.

Technically the only complaint is, occasionally, Engler chooses the wrong character to—literally—focus on in a shot. It’s like he doesn’t have the right sense of some scenes’ emotionality. And, of course, it’s over too soon. It’s not too short. But it is over too soon.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Engler; written by Julian Fellowes; director of photography, Ben Smithard; edited by Mark Day; music by John Lunn; production designer, Donal Woods; produced by Fellowes, Gareth Neame, and Liz Trubridge; released by Focus Features.

Starring Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith), Allen Leech (Tom Branson), Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary Talbot), Maggie Smith (Violet Crawley), Elizabeth McGovern (Cora Crawley), Hugh Bonneville (Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham), Penelope Wilton (Isobel Merton), Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes), Jim Carter (Mr. Carson), Robert James-Collier (Thomas Barrow), Joanne Froggatt (Anna Bates), Brendan Coyle (Mr. Bates), Sophie McShera (Daisy Mason), Lesley Nicol (Mrs. Patmore), Michael Fox (Andy Parker), Raquel Cassidy (Miss Baxter), Kevin Doyle (Mr. Molesley), Harry Hadden-Paton (Bertie Hexham), Imelda Staunton (Maud Bagshaw), Tuppence Middleton (Lucy Smith), Kate Phillips (Princess Mary), Geraldine James (Queen Mary), Simon Jones (King George V), Max Brown (Richard Ellis), Stephen Campbell Moore (Captain Chetwode), Susan Lynch (Miss Lawton), David Haig (Mr. Wilson), Mark Addy (Mr. Bakewell), Philippe Spall (Monsieur Courbet), and Richenda Carey (Mrs. Webb).


Advertisements

Murder by Death (1976, Robert Moore)

Writer Neil Simon did not adapt Murder by Death from one of his plays, which I’ve always assumed he did. While the film does have a more theatrical structure–a great deal of Death is the cast in one room–the action does follow the characters around and some of their experiences would be impossible without cinematic storytelling.

Simon’s structure for the film, which takes its time not just introducing the characters, but the mystery and all the elements involved, is brilliant. Death‘s a spoof and practically a spoof of a spoof, something Simon plays with in the dialogue. He’s very playful in the dialogue–there’s a great exchange with David Niven, Alec Guinness and Maggie Smith where Smith’s character gets tired of listening to Simon’s banter. And Simon discreetly gets it in. Death isn’t about misdirection, it’s about being so constantly funny the viewer can no longer anticipate gags.

Besides the actors–everyone is outstanding, with Eileen Brennan and James Coco probably being the best. James Cromwell is also really good as Coco’s sidekick. And Peter Sellers as the Charlie Chan stand-in can only get funnier with Peter Falk’s Sam Spade analogue harassing him. It’s hard to list all the funny moments because there are ninety-some minutes of them.

Moore’s direction is ideal. He doesn’t get in the way of the cast or the script. Great Dave Grusin music.

Death is utterly fantastic. It doesn’t even matter the film’s narrative doesn’t work. Simon’s a very funny guy.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Moore; written by Neil Simon; director of photography, David M. Walsh; edited by John F. Burnett; music by Dave Grusin; production designer, Stephen B. Grimes; produced by Ray Stark; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Eileen Brennan (Tess Skeffington), Truman Capote (Lionel Twain), James Coco (Milo Perrier), Peter Falk (Sam Diamond), Alec Guinness (Bensonmum), Elsa Lanchester (Jessica Marbles), David Niven (Dick Charleston), Peter Sellers (Sidney Wang), Maggie Smith (Dora Charleston), Nancy Walker (Yetta, the cook), Estelle Winwood (Nurse Withers), James Cromwell (Marcel) and Richard Narita (Willie Wang).


RELATED

Death on the Nile (1978, John Guillermin)

I’d forgotten John Guillermin directed Death on the Nile. The opening credits, a static shot of the river, suggest a much different experience then the film delivers–between Guillermin directing, Jack Cardiff shooting it and Anthony Shaffer handling the adaptation. I suppose I should have remembered Shaffer also adapted Christie’s Evil Under the Sun to similar result.

Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the wondrous Nino Rota score, which starts as the titles identify Guillermin as the director.

Unfortunately, Guillermin does very little with the direction here. I suppose he presents a fantastic travelogue of Egypt–how could he not with Cardiff photographing it–but, otherwise, the direction is little different than if he’d been shooting for television. In fact, Death on the Nile often reminded me (when inside) of a British television drama from the seventies.

But the point of these Poirot films isn’t necessarily the filmmaking or the writing, it’s the all star cast–it must be the cast, since relatively nothing happens for the first hour. And the cast is decent, but somewhat unspectacular, as the roles don’t give any actor much to do.

Mia Farrow is best, since her role gives her a lot of range, and Maggie Smith and Bette Davis are amusing as they bicker. But young lovers Jon Finch and Olivia Hussey? They’re genial, pointless additions.

Particularly–and sadly–useless is David Niven, who plays sidekick to Peter Ustinov’s tepid Poirot. Ustinov plays him here without flair, which is, like everything else, disappointing.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by John Guillermin; screenplay by Anthony Shaffer, based on the novel by Agatha Christie; director of photography, Jack Cardiff; edited by Malcolm Cooke; music by Nino Rota; production designer, Peter Murton; produced by John Brabourne and Richard B. Goodwin; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Peter Ustinov (Hercule Poirot), Jane Birkin (Louise Bourget), Lois Chiles (Linnet Ridgeway), Bette Davis (Mrs. Van Schuyler), Mia Farrow (Jacqueline De Bellefort), Jon Finch (Mr. Ferguson), Olivia Hussey (Rosalie Otterbourne), I.S. Johar (Manager Of The Karnak), George Kennedy (Andrew Pennington), Angela Lansbury (Mrs. Salome Otterbourne), Simon MacCorkindale (Simon Doyle), David Niven (Colonel Race), Maggie Smith (Miss Bowers), Jack Warden (Dr. Bessner), Harry Andrews (Barnstaple) and Sam Wanamaker (Rockford).


RELATED

Evil Under the Sun (1982, Guy Hamilton)

As innocuous as Evil Under the Sun can get–and expecting anything else from it seems unintended–the film does have a slightly discomforting feel about it. Perhaps it’s the extraordinary level of benignity, but at times, it really does seem like Peter Ustinov (as Hercule Poirot) is going to be murdered by each and every person in the film. Murder on the Orient Express, not to ruin it for anyone, along with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, makes Agatha Christie suspect. If there’s no good way out, she’ll just push on through… M. Night Shyamalan owes more to her than anyone else, in terms of wasting people’s engagement with a story and characters, anyway.

The difference between an Agatha Christie novel and an Agatha Christie filmic adaptation, as I just got done telling my fiancée, is simple. It’s about the actors, the location, and the running time. Evil Under the Sun runs around two hours and was filmed on a beautiful island in the Mediterranean. Ustinov’s amusing–though not as funny as when Ustinov’s really being funny, Maggie Smith and Denis Quilley have some good scenes, and James Mason has fun. No one’s particularly bad–Diana Rigg’s supposed to be incredibly annoying–though Nicholas Clay’s accent appears and intensifies after a certain point. It’s harmless, even if it isn’t particularly interesting.

Evil Under the Sun has an interesting structure–there’s no murder for the first hour. Then there’s a half hour of questioning, maybe a little less, then there’s a ten minute reveal and the end. While the scenery is pretty and the cast is okay, there’s nothing particularly dynamic about it. The film keeps the audience with the promise of the murder, as I imagine the book does, and offers them little else to do with their time. Guy Hamilton’s direction does very little with interiors–outside it’s pretty, inside it’s boring, but there are two days inside before anything happens and it could use some oomph. After a certain point, deep in the monotony of the supporting cast’s dramatics, I’d forgotten Ustinov was in the movie.

The end payoff, as delivered by Ustinov, makes the experience moderately worthwhile. Certainly nothing to watch again, but not a complete waste. Screenwriter Anthony Shaffer wrote The Wicker Man, so he’s obviously capable of a good twist and a good end, but the adherence to the novel really handicaps him….

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Guy Hamilton; screenplay by Anthony Shaffer, based on a novel by Agatha Christie; director of photography, Christopher Challis; edited by Richard Marden; music by Cole Porter; production designer, Elliot Scott; produced by John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Peter Ustinov (Hercule Poirot), Colin Blakely (Sir Horace Blatt), Jane Birkin (Christine Redfern), Nicholas Clay (Patrick Redfern), Maggie Smith (Daphne Castle), Roddy McDowall (Rex Brewster), Sylvia Miles (Myra Gardener), James Mason (Odell Gardener), Denis Quilley (Kenneth Marshall), Diana Rigg (Arlena Marshall) and Emily Hone (Linda Marshall).


RELATED