The pantheon of successful television shows turned into successful films is a limited one. In the past two decades, cinematic versions of either recently concluded television shows or ones nearly forgotten have resulted in less than stellar results. There are a few exceptions (perhaps most unexpectedly, the over-the-top comedic efforts of 21 Jump Street), but more often than not, they end up as nothing more than caricatures of a television show long gone. Much loved drama Downton Abbey makes its way into cinemas and has the distinct advantage of being not too far removed from their original television run (2010-2015). On top of which, most, if not all, of the series’ actors and characters, are returning to a script and story written by the show’s creator Julian Fellowes. It is with that advantage that Downton Abbey finds itself in rarefied company- it is a film that deviates very little from what made the television show so successful and charming, with only the medium in which it tells its story changing.
The film is set in 1927, a year after the events of the series end, and finds the Crawley Family unexpectedly hosting King George V and Queen Mary at Downton. The royal visit has the house in a flurry of activity as it rushes to prepare for its royal guests. From here we are reintroduced to the wonderful characters of the “upstairs” (Hugh Bonneville as The Earl of Grantham, Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith, Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary, Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Cora, Maggie Smith as the Countess, et al) as well as the cast of the “downstairs” (Brendan Coyle as Mr Bates, Joanne Froggatt as Mrs. Bates, Lesley Nicol as Ms. Patmore, Jim Carter as Mr. Carson, et al), who have thankfully, not changed all that much since we last saw them. As Downton prepares for the visit, we find that the dynamics that the show built up over the course of 5 seasons are very much intact. The visiting Royals are bringing their own team of staff, a touring entourage that ultimately ends up clashing with Downton’s staff. From here we see the resolve, love and comradeship found within the Downton staff as they battle with the visiting staff to maintain their place in the house. The story unfolds with humor, wit, and a reserved elegance that became the mainstay to the series.
There are a lot of characters in the film to find screen time for. In the 122 minutes, we are given enough screentime for some old favorites (like former chauffeur and Irish socialist Tom Branson) to find significant storylines while being introduced to new characters. A dispute over an inheritance finds the introduction of Imelda Staunton (as Queen Mary’s Lady-in-Waiting, Lady Maud Bagshaw- the cousin of Lord Grantham) and her maid into the plot that weaves itself in and out of the main narrative. It’s a similar case for Downton’s long-suffering, now head butler Thomas Darrow (Robert James-Collier) living the life of a closeted homosexual in 1920s England. Along with stories of Lady Edith’s head-strong clash with tradition and kitchen maid Daisy’s constant disdain for the monarchy that makes for many interesting puzzle pieces that Fellowes has crafted to fit together rather well. We are given plenty of time to fall in love with everyone again, and while the injection of new blood gives the movie a fresh note, the composition of the overall piece remains wonderfully true to the series.
The humor is never overwhelming or tacky (rather delightful at times), and the commentary less of an attempt at sociopolitical upheaval than it is revisiting a time in history and how it was. The film’s biggest drawback perhaps is its reliance on the audience’s knowledge of the series. It would be difficult to understand or fully invest in the myriad of characters, backstories, and histories if you weren’t one of those who have seen the series in its entirety. The film relies heavily on your understanding of everything that has happened over the course of the series. In a strange way, it is also one of the film’s strength- that it doesn’t need to spend precious screen time retreating or explaining 6 seasons’ worth of television.
At the conclusion of the film, the characters of Mr. and Mrs. Carson walk away from Downton after a busy several days, talking about the changing times. Mr. Carson states that in a hundred years, no matter the circumstances, that Downton will still be standing. Downton is the silent giant of both the series and the film. The monolithic structure quietly and elegantly remains in the backdrop of almost every significant occurrence in the film, and like the series, remains as the defining presence of everything that happens. Downton Abbey is a joy, never without class, elegance, and charm. In a world where big-screen entertainment is dominated by galactic imaginations that has become equally captivating, this film is much needed quiet refinement.
Downton Abbey is in cinemas now in the UK and Australia and will open in US cinemas September 20th.
Directed by: Michael Engler
Written by: Julian Fellowes
Cast: Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern, Joanne Froggatt, Brendan Coyle, Maggie Smith
Distributed by: Focus Features
Runtime: 122 minutes
Film Review: Ender’s Game
Ender’s Game for all accounts is an excellent book but as a film it fails to excite.
Set in a distant future the new sci-fi flick Ender’s Game sees gifted children trained as war leaders in an effort to thwart planet destroying attacks from giant ant-like aliens. It’s based on a popular sci-fi book from the mid-eighties but this movie adaptation fails to explain most of what’s going on in much depth.
The unlikely named Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is a Third, a third child that is, which is apparently a point of shame. Ender should never have existed or at least that is how he feels. He is therefore determined to prove himself at battle school. Singled out by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford playing Harrison Ford) for his unique take on war games and strategy, Ender is put through the rings to prove his worth. He is subjected to bullying, kicked off the program, isolation, abusive commanders and hostile comrades all in an effort to gauge his reaction and help the powers that be determine if Ender is ‘The One’ – the one who will save mankind and annihilate the enemy once and for all.
The vast majority of Ender’s Game is spent with the teenage cadets waging virtual wars with each other. No doubt there is meant to be a subtle commentary about child soldiers but the message is lost amongst the two dimensional characters the movie offers up or diverted by the less than snazzy CGI effects of the simulated war games or space boot camp training centre. Butterfield does an adequate job of portraying Ender, a character who seems basically good but is forced to do bad things because of the circumstances he finds himself in. And there is a vague kind of subtext asking us to ponder whether the end justifies the means. However, what is annoying is how the film seems to switch between assuming the viewers are familiar with the story and glossing over key points to then spending too much time explaining what’s happening rather than showing it. The pace is disjointed and you soon feel as if the film is simply making sure it hits its plot points at specific times without ensuring any effort is made to connect them.
Ender’s Game for all accounts is an excellent book but as a film it fails to excite. This seems to be the general consensus of audiences. After such a lack lustre performance at the US Box Office all hopes of making the series into a franchise have been abandoned.
Ender’s Game is simply not a game worth watching.
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford
Directed by: Gavin Hood
Written by: Gavin Hood, Orson Scott Card
Distributed by: Icon Films
Film Review: Clear History
The king of awkward social situations Larry David, returns in this latest HBO TV movie– Clear History.
The king of awkward social situations Larry David, returns in this latest HBO TV movie– Clear History. Taking place in California during the cusp of a new automobile revolution, attributed to an innovative electric car titled the ‘Howard’. Clear History follows the life of marketing executive Nathan Flomm (Larry David) as he loses his stake in this newfound multi-billion dollar company, and proceeds to plot revenge on his former CEO and boss Will Haney (Jon Hamm) ten years later, under the guise of a new identity in a whole new state.
The similarities between Clear History and Curb Your Enthusiasm is prevalent in more ways than one – going further than just the neurotic comedic style and absurdist riffing. Theme wise, Clear History also shares some similarities with Larry David’s pastfailed film – Sour Grapes. Running for around 100 minutes (1 hour 40 minutes) as others will without doubt mention, Clear History does indeed feel like an extended episode of Curb. For fans of Larry David and the show, this should come as good news, seeing as how the last episode of Season 8 aired way back in 2011.
Although this made for TV movie is not as strong as an individual episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Clear History still delivers laughs based around awkward comedic situations and social observations à la Curb and Seinfeld at a healthy rate. The appearance of Larry David in the lead role, costumed like a new age Grizzly Adams figure should be enough to put a smile on your face.
The first quarter or 15 minutes of Clear History resembles a stand-alone movie (as it should). However, once we advance ten years in the plot, with the character Nathan Flomm disguised under a new alias (Rolly DaVore) – the movie becomes almost indistinguishable from a Curb episode. The lead character reverts and obtains the appearance and traits of Larry David’spersona that we know-and-love from Curb Your Enthusiasm, verbatim. Wether viewers enjoy or dislike this shift; the result from an objective stand-point feels somewhat disjointed.
While Clear History does have its strong moments, the narrative at a whole does not seem to have enough wind in the sails to keep it going. The result feels like a series of sketches built around a quirky premise – which is fine, though maybe not worth the 1 hour 40 minute format. Strong individual points are littered in a sporadic manner, though weaker moments also rear their head from time to time. The latter is often due to narrative necessities, attributed to the longer format. At times, this comes across as feeling like ‘filler’ or padding out. The comedy in the writing is solid, and sees the return of three co-writers (excluding Larry David) from legendary sitcom, Seinfeld – Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer. Dialogue for the most part however, is improvised in the same vein as Curb Your Enthusiasm.
The directing of Clear History from Greg Mottola is very straight-shooting, and gets the point across without much artistic composition or complexity. The cinematography from Jim Denault and aesthetics are likewise dull in interest, though adequate at a whole. Overall the film appearance seems average and safe, which is a shame when compared with past and present television shows (and films) with high quality production values and directing.
Other than the aforementioned, there is not much more to criticise. The casting is fantastic and one of the strong points, with some surprising choices that manage to excel in their respective roles and characters. The list includes the eccentric and erratic pyromaniac, Joe Stumpo (Michael Keaton), CEO and former boss Will Haney (Jon Hamm), his trophy wife Rhonda Haney (Kate Hudson), Jennifer (Eva Mendes) and return of comedic veterans and my personal favourites, – Jaspar, played by J. B. Smooth and McKenzie, played by the iconic Philip Baker Hall. Michael Keaton’s performance is noteworthy, and one that almost steals the show in my view. Other cast members include Bill Hader, Danny McBride, Amy Ryan and Liev Schreiber.
As a long time fan of Larry David, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Seinfeld, I was more than excited to sit down and watch this latest helping from one of televisions’ greatest comedic minds. At the end of it all, I feel Clear History is worth a viewing and should provide a good dosage of laughs and entertainment for fans and average viewers alike; though I doubt this made for TV movie will be very much remembered other than by diehard fans of Larry David in years to come. For those who have been waiting for a new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Clear History should provide a welcome relief.
Directed by: Greg Mottola
Written by: Alec Berg, Larry David, Jeff Schaffer
Cast: Larry David, Bill Hader, Jon Hamm, Philip Baker Hall, Kate Hudson
Released by: HBO Films