Tag Archives: Downton Abbey

Review: Downton Abbey s04 e01

PD69988316_DOWNTON_2678043b(dir. David Evans)

Where season three of Julian Fellowes’ prized possession, Downton Abbey, collapsed under the weight of its numerous plot conveniences and event-heavy, gradually wishy-washy eight episode run, it was followed by a Christmas special that was a painfully slow example of the show at its posturing worst. Instead of exposing the series’ carefully developed ensemble to anything particularly noteworthy, or indeed progressive, ‘A Journey to the Highlands’ was a tour de force in tedious storytelling and gaping non-sequiturs, where dramatic tension stemmed merely from a carnival-set tug of war and an altercation with a spiked glass of punch. It did, however, do something right in its abrupt killing off of protagonist Matthew Crawley in the tacked-on climax, a decision that lets a little air back into the show’s stuffy, snails-pace development.

At a time of creative shortages, Matthew’s untimely demise was met with widespread disdain – clearly from those blissfully unaware of actor Dan Stevens’ vehement, vociferous designs for departure pre-season three – yet provided a blessing in disguise; a chance for Fellowes to swerve his sinking ship in new and fresher directions. And that he has if this opening episode of season four is anything to go by; a feature-length icebreaker for what will hopefully be a wallow-free beeline back to the boldness and simplistic machinations of season one, where character relations took precedent over whatever tragedy loomed murkily around the corner.

The episode opens with the series’ – easily the best looking show on UK television – proclivity for glorious mise en scene returning in full, gothic-inflected swing. A solitary light dangles amongst the midnight darkness enshrouding the Abbey, its occupants sleeping and corridors vacant save for chief lady’s maid O’Brien absconding for pastures sunnier, though probably less eventful. It’s a stirring beginning that lays the groundwork for what will essentially be Fellowes’ new-fangled modus operandi: out with the old and in with the new.

That isn’t to say the show is now inundated with new faces, quite the contrary in fact; aside from Lily James’ young, spunky Lady Rose (a by-product of Sybil’s passing last season) injecting new blood into the stately home, the season looks set to move its focus back onto the family at the core of the story. This means we have characters actually doing something noteworthy instead of fading into the detailed background. Most notably active are Maggie Smith’s Countess of Grantham, who sets about trying to aid the unemployed Molesley (in a beefed up role); Thomas and Cora contending with a draconian new children’s nanny, and Mrs. Hughes, who attempts to simultaneously reawaken Carson’s past whilst planting Isobel Crawley back into the present tense. It’s Isobel who gets the most heartrending line of the episode (“When your only child dies, then you’re not a mother anymore. You’re not anything, really”), a conclusion she’s reached in a deep state of mourning.

Also trapped in infinite bereavement is Mary, whose skeletal, Mrs Danvers-esque figure and wispy vocal tones are a physical embodiment of how bereft she is, unable, even after six months, to come to terms with being both a widow and a mother to a fatherless son, now the heir of Downton’s estate. Her father, the gapingly one-note Earl of Grantham, looks to shield her from the outside world and divert attentions away from her role in the running of Downton, a role diminished by Matthew’s death. Someone no longer toiling under the thumb of old-fashioned patriarchy is Mary’s sister Edith who, thanks to the new fangled attractions of a London in the throes of the burgeoning, 1922’s Jazz Age, is being whisked away from a life of dowdy shadow-dwelling to the height of cultural sophistication. It’s a marked and somewhat divisive move to swap the activities of its two principal ‘upstairs’ characters, but it works and respectively allows Michelle Dockery and Laura Carmichael a much-needed change of pace.

Though some would argue the show is still trapped in its all-out flirtations with the melodramatic frameworks and narrative prospects of soap – of which it is arguably a handsomely coiffured modern example, it’s apt that this season opener deals so openly with the figurative light at the end of a gruelling tunnel. It also proves how, given a degree of hindsight, a major fatality can be more of a fortuitous opportunity than a cause for concern, dealing with it by getting over it.

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Review: Summer in February

20120808_summerinfebruary_promo1-1-4309220(Dir. Christopher Menaul, 2013)

(Originally posted at Take One)

Twigging the success and popularity both fictional and factual tales of the upper classes amidst pre-WW1 equanimity have been on British television of late, writer Jonathan Smith adapts for the screen and presents Summer in February, based on his own original novel. Directed by Christopher Menaul, who, tellingly, comes from a lengthy career in made-for-television productions, the film is a rigid glance into the fraught emotions and relationship antics that ran amuck in the Newlyn School artist’s colony in Cornwall, 1911. Steering away from the socio-political contexts of a Britain on the brink of a major war, Smith’s screenplay instead focuses on a bland love triangle based on actual events, yet the film desperately lacks the turbulence necessary to make this romantic quandary remotely engrossing; the type of turbulence expressed by the crashing waves that surround these vapid character’s picturesque locale.

Not an actor of particular subtlety, Dominic Cooper plays the painter, poet and self-confessed womaniser A.J. Munnings, whose vernacular is as eloquent and sharp as his brush strokes. Alongside his good friend Gilbert Evans, a local land agent (played by the stuffy Dan Stevens, who also acts as producer), Munnings enjoys a carefree life amongst the bucolic shores and shapely maidens of the Cornish coast, enjoying the fruits of his arrogant travails uninterrupted by responsibility or artistic interference. A simple existence of painting and poetry is scuppered, however, with the arrival of Florence Carter-Wood (Emily Browning), an aspiring artist who joins the group and immediately charms both Munnings – who initially schools her in painting – and Gilbert, whose unrequited passion grows. As the three friends embark on a cautious and discrete love triangle, events conspire to take a toll as their individual futures become darker and altogether more unwelcoming.

Taking its various dramatic cues from heated tea parties and characters gazing, woefully, into the beautifully captured middle distance, Summer in February is a triumph of antiquated posturing and quite unimaginative storytelling, marrying Smith’s stilted and mostly limply spouted dialogue with Menaul’s elementary directing style. Marking his first post-Downton Abbey role – a soapy perusal through post-Edwardian aristocracy that, despite being not dissimilar to the contexts of Smith’s story, is largely more guiltily enjoyable – Stevens effectively channels his past role as fusty Matthew Crawley into his portrayal of Gilbert, a man defined by pent-up emotion. Though it isn’t that much of a stretch, Stevens – whose time on set was split with the filming of ITV’s televisual behemoth – brings relatively little to a part that is already thinly sketched. All Gilbert is is an opposition to Munnings’ seething egotism, an everyman who audiences are meant to root for when Florence’s indecision begins to semi-drastically unravel.

That isn’t to say any of the characters are particularly well rendered. Quite the contrary in fact; Smith’s story languishes in stock characters trapped in a conventional portrait of adultery and conflicted emotions: Munnings the deceptively charming man governed by his art; Gilbert the lovable dote, and Florence an artistic novice with a vulnerable disposition. Each actor brings little to their parts or even challenges their stilted characteristics, instead collectively settling for evocatively dressed blobs of colour sat on a palette, refusing to comingle.

As a depiction of bourgeois artistry in a pre-war period, Summer in February has some interesting angles. Yet Menaul does nothing with already staid material, and the result is almost unbearably dull.