Downton Abbey (2019)

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It’s like living in a factory. It’s 1927. Excitement is high at Downton Abbey when the Crawley family headed by Robert, Earl Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) learn that King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) are coming to visit. Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) is perturbed that Maud, Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) Queen Mary’s lady-in-waiting, is included in the tour. Maud is Robert’s cousin and her closest relative. The two families have fallen out over who should inherit Maud’s estate, Robert or Maud’s maid, Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton). Tom Branson (Allen Leech) makes nice with a stranger known only as Major Chetwode (Stephen Campbell Moore) who he believes is keeping him under surveillance for his Irish Republican sympathies. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) scrambles to get the household ready but butler Barrow (Robert James-Collier) is proving inadequate to the task and Carson (Jim Carter) is quickly summoned out of retirement. But trouble arises when the cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), Daisy (Sophie McShera), housekeeper Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and the rest of the servants learn that the king and queen travel with their own chefs and attendants – so when the Royal Page of the Backstairs (David Haig) arrives with the entourage the stage is set for a showdown below stairs Secrets always muddle things. Julian Fellowes returns to the big screen with a country house tale nearly two decades after Gosford Park which inspired the hugely successful Downton Abbey TV show in the first place. There’s less plot than one of those episodes and it picks up approximately 18 months after the last one but the characters are so barely skimmed over and it all looks so pretty you’ll hardly notice – the only possible controversy is with an attempted royal assassination, trouble with the monarch’s daughter Princess Mary’s (Kate Phillips) marriage, Barrow’s trip to the Twenties equivalent of a gay rave, Lady Edith’s (Laura Carmichael) mysterious retreat from independence into the world of ladies who lunch (which she only addresses late in the story) and a lightly trailed retirement of the world’s favourite pantomime Dame Maggie who lands all of the best lines. Well she would, wouldn’t she. Even Isis the dog makes a return albeit she isn’t called. Nary a hint of revolution save a mention of the General Strike which leads the Dowager Countess to observe that she noticed her maid was rather curt to her. Featherweight entertainment, as light and fluffy and non-calorific as one of Mrs Patmore’s soufflés. Directed by Michael Engler.  I know I’m going to forget my lines

 

Under the Cherry Moon (1986)

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The more you drink, the better I sound. Gigolo cousins Christopher Tracy (Prince) and  Tricky (Jerome Benton) swindle wealthy French women as they pursue musical careers on the Riviera. The situation gets complicated when Christopher falls in love with heiress Mary Sharon (Kristin Scott Thomas) after planning to swindle her when he finds out that she inherits a $50 million trust fund on her 21st birthday. Mary’s shipping magnate father Isaac (Steven Berkoff) disapproves of the romance and proves a difficult adversary. Meanwhile, Christopher rivals Tricky for Mary’s affections…  I want a girl who’s smart, a girl who can teach me things. I hate stupid women. You know why? You marry a stupid girl, you have stupid kids. You don’t believe me? Follow a stupid kid home and see if somebody stupid don’t answer the door. Nutty, silly, completely nonsensical and entertaining in ways that somehow seem very Eighties – it could only be the work of that great musical genius, Prince. With highly demonstrative acting that is straight out of the silent era, a debut by Scott Thomas, a nod to the Beatles’ movies in the casting of Victor Spinetti, and a raft of extraordinary music, this notoriously earned a hoard of Golden Raspberries while being labelled a Vanity Project but is all about romance and the kind of class zaniness directly attributable to Thirties screwball. Analysing performance in such a deliberately OTT eye-rolling production is beside the point. It’s all about pastiche and homage and is as fluffy and adorable as a kitten with daft dialogue and a game cast whose collective tongue is firmly in cheek. Originally Mary Lambert was set to direct but Prince took over those duties, crediting her as creative consultant.  Written by Becky Johnston; with classic songs by Prince and the Revolution and orchestration by Clare Fischer. Total fun.  I do nothing professionally, I do everything for fun

Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

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Should you murder me, remember you murder your sister… and you murder your queen!  Queen of France at 16 and widowed at 18, Catholic Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) defies pressure to remarry. Instead, she returns to her native Scotland to reclaim her rightful throne with the aim of also taking the English throne which is her birthright, guided by her adviser Bothwell (Martin Compston). However, Scotland and England fall under the rule of her cousin, the compelling Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) the illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Each young Queen beholds her ‘sister’ in fear and fascination. Mary has to deal with the ambitions of her bastard half-brother James Murray (James McArdle) and succumbs to the charms of the bisexual Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) in order to become a mother but his father (Brendan Coyle) has designs on power. Her reign attracts the hatred of Protestant reformer John Knox (David Tennant) who stirs up the natives against their tolerant Catholic ruler and calls her a whore. Elizabeth’s adviser Henry Cecil (Guy Pearce) carries out her bid to assist in driving a civil war designed to remove Mary from the throne… Do not play into their hands. Our hatred is precisely what they hope for. I know your heart has more within it than the men who counsel you. Adapted from John Guy’s biography by Beau Willimon, it may seem hasty to declare that despite its raft of historical inaccuracies this still has a lot to recommend it, even if its PC multiverse of many races and choose-your-own-perversion plays into the right-on millennial world rather than the well documented dour backdrop of sixteenth-century Scotland (things are ever thus there…). Willimon is of course responsible for Netflix’s House of Cards and knows his way around politics and other games of thrones so the focus on the women struggling against the counsel of conniving men drives the drama forward while the plotting literally gallops apace. With Tennant doing Knox as the Comical Ali of fundamentalist Protestantism the odds of us supporting the bastard English Queen are low to zero, despite the crosscutting suggesting links both emotional and physical between these young rivals. The Virgin Queen is in fact more in touch with the reality of both of their situations, surrounded by controlling men, as the fabricated meeting between them (a liberty also taken in the 1971 version) clarifies: she recognises that Mary’s beauty, bravery and motherhood are both her greatest assets and her deepest flaws and have led to her downfall. She herself is more man than woman, she declares – her reign has made her thus. Ronan plays Mary as a variation on Joan of Arc – a sharp military mind with a conscience as transparent as her pallor and bright blue eyes (albeit Willimon writes her as a feckless Marie Antoinette a lot of the time), while Robbie’s Queen is the one beset with the miseries of the pox and a devious court craven by her power. They are both tremendous but this is really Ronan’s show, as the title suggests. Pearce, Lowden and Compston are particularly good in their treacherous sideshows. Nonetheless it’s wonderful to see two of the best young actresses in the world leading a film of such affecting performances.  The final contrasting shots of Mary’s meeting with destiny and Elizabeth’s costumes and cosmetics literally solidifying into a stony inhuman edifice linger in the mind.  Directed by Josie Rourke. I know your heart has more within it than the men who counsel you

What a Carve Up! (1961)

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Aka No Place Like Homicide. One thing is certain – this is only the start. When wealthy recluse Gabriel Broughton dies of fright his heirs are summoned to his isolated country mansion Blackshaw Towers for a reading of the will. Then they are killed off, one by one and the nearest telephone is in the village … If he thinks I’m going to wait here and wind up in a deckchair on the lawn he’s got another thing coming. Adapted from Frank King’s novel The Ghoul by eminent British farceur Ray Cooney and Tony Hilton (they had co-written The Hand the previous year), this is an opportunity for Carry On regulars Kenneth Connor and Sid James to essay a pleasing Laurel and Hardy act (including a shared bed) as proofreader Ernest (nephew of the deceased) and his bookmaker roommate Syd, attending as his legal advisor. They are accompanied by pretty Linda (Shirley Eaton) a nurse, whom Ernest fancies; Ernest’s cousin Guy Broughton (Dennis Price) an ex-Army officer with an alcohol problem; Guy’s grasping sister Janet (Valerie Taylor); their father Doctor Edward (Michael Gwynn); their batty aunt Emily (Esma Cannon); solicitor Everett Sloane (!!) (Donald Pleasence); and the butler, Fisk (Michael Gough). It plays with all the notions of the haunted house and might remind some of Clue but is mainly a showcase for some good slapstick and mild innuendo which might still raise eyebrows. Genial fun performed by a very game ensemble with pop star Adam Faith turning up in the final sequence, which is explicitly used by author Jonathan Coe in his titular satirical homage to the film. Produced by Robert S. Baker and Monty Baker and directed by the brilliant documentary maker Pat Jackson. Syd, look! French Impressionists – Rembrandt!

Ludwig (1973)

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Ludwig. He loved women. He loved men. He lived as controversially as he ruled. But he did not care what the world thought. He was the world. Munich 1864. Young Ludwig (Helmut Berger) is crowned King of Bavaria and sets up financing his composer friend Richard Wagner (Trevor Howard) whom he hopes will be his intimate friend. When Wagner betrays him with married Cosima von Bülow (Silvana Mangano) he leaves Munich but Ludwig continues to support him. Ludwig’s cousin Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Romy Schneider) wants to set him up with her sister Sophie (Sonia Petrovna) but it’s Elisabeth that Ludwig wants. He retreats into the world of imagination, soundtracked to Wagner’s compositions, even when the 1866 Austro-Prussian war happens and his brother Otto (John Moulder-Brown) and cabinet cannot persuade him to take a side. Despite his burgeoning homosexuality he is persuaded to marry Sophie by his advisor Count Durckheim (Helmut Griem). Following the Franco-Prussian war of 1871 when Bavaria loses a deal of sovereignty to Prussia, Otto is hospitalised to treat his declining mental health. Ludwig is absorbed by his extravagant building projects including Neuschwanstein Castle and becomes involved with actor Josef Kainz (Folker Bohnet) and starts hosting orgies. He ignores Elisabeth. Word of his behaviour spreads to the Bavarian cabinet so that by 1886 it’s time to draft in the doctors … Mad, bad and dangerous, that was Ludwig’s reputation and Luchino Visconti’s lush, beautiful account doesn’t exactly clarify matters about his decline and mysterious demise even though it creates a fully fleshed world, dictated by the preferences of the protagonist himself. Partly the confusion has to do with what version you have the opportunity to watch. With five different cuts varying from two to four hours in length (I have watched two, the latest being the 226 minutes version as Visconti intended) this is something of a frustration in anyone’s language;  and, at the point in Visconti’s career where decoration was slowly supplanting dramatic tension, the joy in seeing Berger and Schneider exchanging sweet nothingness is replaced by a kind of exhaustion. Beauty can do that to a person. Breathtaking? It’s all that. And less, and less, if you see the shorter cuts with some of the gay stuff removed for censorship reasons. To the detriment too of dramatic logic. Yet this is quite a rounded vision of Germany’s intellectual and cultural aspects in the latter half of the nineteenth century, bristling through a nation-state’s growing political personality as a kind of warped belle époque happens. Visconti had a stroke after filming which led to all manner of issues for a production that happened when his long-cherished Proust project failed to come to fruition.  It’s a tribute to his protegé Berger really, who totally inhabits the role from boy to man with remarkable, emotive physicality in this inscription to a sorrowful life (the Italian dub is voiced by Giancarlo Giannini); while Schneider was returning to the role of Sissi (which had made her famous throughout Europe in a series of much-loved films) as a favour to the director.  Written by Visconti with Enrico Medioli and Suso Cecchi d’Amico, this was shot on the original locations, which adds immensely to the overwhelming spectacle, a great immersion into big characters and the way they made their lives matter.

They Were Sisters (1945)

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She’s the kind that likes a man that wipes the floor with her. In 1919 three middle-class sisters meet the men they marry and the marriages develop into very different types of relationships. Twenty years later Lucy Moore (Phyllis Calvert) is happily married to her loving husband, the gentle William (Peter Murray-Hill) who has compassion and bases their marriage on understanding. She showers love and affection on her nieces and nephew, since she is unable to bear children of her own. Vera Sargeant (Anne Crawford), is also married to a very loving but fatally dull husband, Brian (Barry Livesey).  She never loved him and indulges her unhappiness with countless affairs and pays little heed to their young daughter. In 1939 both women become worried about their other sister, Charlotte Lee (Dulcie Gray), who cowers in fear of her manipulative and emotionally abusive husband, the sneering scowling Geoffrey (James Mason).  He is a monster and sadist who has picked at Charlotte, belittling her and turning her into a submissive drudge, bullying her to the point of alcoholism. He adores his older daughter Margaret (Pamela Mason) who works for him in his home office where he sells insurance but merely tolerates their younger son and daughter, at best. When Lucy attempts to get help for her, but fails because Geoffrey becomes aware of the failed appointment with a doctor when Vera puts her lover first instead of helping divert him from home, Gray commits the ultimate act of self-harm … Everything I’m used to has given me up. Quite an extraordinary entry in the Gainsborough ‘genre’ – stories of cruelty, the battle of the sexes and violently fantastical romances this is instead a contemporary story of domestic abuse and one lacking the allure of a Regency narrative with a seductive saturnine brute. Mason is just a commonplace bully keen to reduce his wife to nothing – which is what she becomes and her children and sisters are ultimately helpless to break the relationship with Geoffrey. Adapted by Katharine Strueby from Dorothy Whipple’s novel, the screenplay is by Roland Pertwee, who plays the coroner’s court judge. The ties that bind family are explored and the psychology of the bully brilliantly exposed in a drama that does not flinch from showing precisely how women are destroyed by men and lose their sense of self in incompatible unions:  this is a cautionary tale like few produced in British cinema. Weirdly, Charlotte and Geoffrey’s elder daughter is played by Mason’s wife Pamela (Kellino), the daughter of the film’s producer, Maurice Ostrer:  their physical likeness is uncanny. Mason was none too happy about being boxed in these kinds of roles and when he’s reduced to even being cruel to the young son about the dog he’s bought to bribe him and his sister you understand his point: this is a women’s picture, told for the benefit of those caught in terrible relationships. When Vera finally elects to leave her loveless domain and move abroad with the one man she has ever loved, it is at the expense of losing her daughter, who doesn’t even miss her. That the kind and childless Lucy winds up looking after both sister’s children is a dramatic irony that clearly struck people in the aftermath of World War 2.  Gray is wonderful as the woman who simply cannot take it any more while Calvert and Murray-Hill make for an utterly believable couple. This magnificently soapy modern Gothic story of gaslighting was number 4 at the box office on its release. Directed by Arthur Crabtree and produced by Michael Balcon. There are a million families like us

 

 

The Leopard (1963)

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We were the leopards, the lions, those who take our place will be jackals and sheep, and the whole lot of us – leopards, lions, jackals and sheep – will continue to think ourselves the salt of the earth. As Garibaldi’s troops begin the unification of Italy in the 1860s, an aristocratic Sicilian family grudgingly adapts to the sweeping social changes undermining their way of life. The proud but pragmatic (yet feline) Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster) allows his fickle war hero (who changes sides) nephew, Tancredi (Alain Delon), to marry Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), the beautiful daughter of gauche, bourgeois Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa) in order to maintain the family’s accustomed level of comfort and political clout when the fighting approaches their summer home in Sicily but the Prince is himself enchanted with her …  Adapted from Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa’s masterful novel by director Luchino Visconti and Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Enrico Mediloi, Pasquale Festa Campanile and Massimo Franciosa, rarely have the obsessions of a novelist coincided so fortuitously with those of a filmmaker. The Marxist aristocrat Visconti had an intimate acquaintance with the notion of a society in transition and the magnificent central performance by Lancaster anchors the affect in nuance and specificity as he questions his identity and relevance.  The battle scenes that open the film are sunny, stunning and violent, shot almost entirely wide which gives them an appropriately epic quality. The final forty-five minute ball sequence during which the Prince dances with Angelica and Tancredi and the Prince’s daughters look on in variously anguished forms is tantalising:  there are shot choices that make you squeal with delight, almost as gloriously as Cardinale’s devastating laughter at the dinner table. Was there ever a more beautiful or seductive couple than Delon and Cardinale, reunited after Rocco and His Brothers? Not a lot happens:  the Prince realises his way of life (‘leopards and lions’) is changing and he is experiencing history as it unfolds. He discusses his ridiculous marriage with his priest Father Pirrone (Romolo Valli);  he observes a rigged plebiscite;  goes on holiday and a picnic;  hunts;  arranges Tancredi’s marriage to Angelica; walks home from the ball in the early hours of the morning and recognises the shabbiness of the decaying district over which he presides. The novel is wonderful and it is shocking to realise Di Lampedusa died before he could see it become a phenomenon in 1958. A magnificent, bewitching, bittersweet film adaptation made when cinema was great with an immersive score by Nino Rota that perfectly encapsulates a world in love with death. For the ages. We’re just human beings in a changing world.

Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)

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You are Queen of Scotland by birth, Queen of France by marriage and Queen of England by right. There was a swathe of period dramas in the wake of the 1968 riots – perhaps there was something comforting about a retreat into the past, no matter how bloody or violent. Director Charles Jarrott made something of a specialty of this in British cinema and this somewhat by-the-numbers evocation of one of the great rivalries for the crown boasts stellar performances by Vanessa Redgrave as the eponymous Catholic beauty and Glenda Jackson as Protestant Elizabeth I, the bastard daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. It doesn’t trouble with a lot of truth although Patrick McGoohan has a field day playing Mary’s half-brother James, the wannabe Scots ruler, and there’s some interesting bed action between Timothy Dalton as Lord Darnley, planted by Elizabeth to seduce and destroy Mary, and her Italian advisor, Ian Holm, in a tale rife with adultery and bisexuality. The last twenty minutes focuses on a fabricated meeting between the two women, all the better to sweeten the dramatic pill, to a swoony John Barry score and delicious photography by Christopher Challis. Off with her head! Written by John Hale.

Rebecca (1940)

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Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again … One of the most famous opening lines in a novel. Daphne du Maurier got the A-treatment by new arrival to Hollywood, Alfred Hitchcock, working closely with producer David O.Selznick to bring a hugely popular bestseller to the screen. It’s the story of ‘I’ (we never do learn her name) companion to obnoxious American woman Mrs Van Hopper, who escapes her bullying to marry Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), the widower of the eponymous Rebecca, a glamorous socialite who supposedly drowned. When she arrives at their country house Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson) jealously guards her late mistress’ domain and tries to drive this innocent girl mad … Joan Fontaine made a spectacular impact as the ingenuous Second Mrs de Winter in a production dogged by censorship problems – look at what they had to do the ending! But the recovery from those issues (adapted by Joan Harrison and Robert E Sherwood) works beautifully and is adorned by superb performances elsewhere –  George Sanders as Jack Favell, for instance, can’t you practically smell the sweat on his adulterer’s shirt collar?! There are so many great scenes – the hotel bedroom when Mrs Van Hopper stabs out her cigarette, when Fontaine arrives at the costume ball in the dress Rebecca had worn, when Danvers encourages her to commit suicide, the boathouse …    And the overwhelming monogrammed R  … It’s a textual dream. The final images are unforgettable. Rumours abounded that Selznick took over the film and overruled Hitchcock one too many times leading him to edit in camera in future, but du Maurier’s work had a strong influence not just on the great director but on Forties cinema in general. I trace the powerful connections between this haunting drama and Hitchcock’s later Shadow of a Doubt, here:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Girl-Who-Knew-Too-Much-ebook/dp/B01KTWF08U/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1480331252&sr=8-1&keywords=elaine+lennon.

Born to Be Bad (1950)

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Hardly the sort of fare you’d associate with director Nicholas Ray if you’re a newbie to his oeuvre and you won’t detect his fabled stylistic traits here. This is part of Movie4Men’s series of RKO films – a never-ending archive of noir and melodrama. Joan Fontaine plays a maneater – she steals her cousin’s wealthy fiance (Zachary Scott) then cheats on him with a novelist (Robert Ryan). Only the talents involved make this interesting:  Fontaine as the villain is a challenge to viewers who only know her from Rebecca ten years earlier while Scott is hardly up to the role of the cuckold and Ryan never gets much to do. However it’s stylishly adapted by Edith Sommer from the source novel and is entertaining, finishing on an atypically upbeat note.