Downton Abbey: the Movie!

DATELINE: Moving On Up!

The classic TV series returns with a feature film, and the King and Queen of England are coming to dinner. You too, even a commoner, are invited to be a fly on the wall, which is even lower than the downstairs staff.

If you feel like this was already done, you likely saw Upstairs/Downstairsin some rerun incarnation in which the King came to dinner—and sent the TV show into a tizzy. The Fellowes motion picture of Downton Abbeyis lusher and grander.

The original Downton cast is back and kicking up their idiosyncrasies in the upper and lower chambers.

The man cursed by King Tut, Lord Carnarvan, left his beautiful castle home to serve as a stand-in for noble living, which is still the real star playing the scandal-ridden abbey.

Hugh Bonneville is back—and so are his two rival daughters (Laura Carmichael and Michelle Dockery), but you will be swept back into the luxury by the marvelous suite music that is the theme. The music transports you to another era.

Julian Fellowes, creator, was never totally original, but he manages the materials from dozens of sources to produce an optimistic and pleasant diversion from anything resembling modern life.

All the characters pick right up on the spot: Maggie Smith’s acerbic dowager countess is known even to the Queen for her biting wit. There are polite family feuds brewing beneath the surface of the upper-crust, and sexual peccadilloes are sweating in the downstairs with Barrow (Robert James-Collier)  and his gay feelings for a footman. We see the inside of a 1927 gay bar,

If the entire mess is to be derailed by such shenanigans, it takes Carson the butler(Jim Carter) to come out of retirement to save the day.  The conflicts, as always at Downton, are small and personal. And, we learn in a class society how unimportant we truly are at Downton Abbey.

As expected in British repertory company, the cast is brilliant (even down to American Elizabeth McGovern), but the treat here is the sumptuous production—even grander and more movie-like than the small screen version.



Nothing Like Four Dames

DATELINE:  Great Actresses Reminisce.

Grand DamesGrandstanding with the Grand Dames

If you like good conversation with witty old ladies over tea and champagne, you may find Tea with the Dames quite your cuppa hot stuff if you enjoy BBC America.

The film is all too short but packed with anecdotes, and you are left with a sense you know these complex, often difficult actresses.

Dame Joan is now legally blind and unable to work, but the women go back sixty years in friendship. The other three are still quite active on screen.

They are literally four Dames:  English titles for accomplishments of women, an equivalent of knighthood. Dame Joan Plowright, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith, and Dame Eileen Atkins, are familiar to anyone who likes good acting. Now you can enjoy their bawdy and chippy chitchat.

The group is gathered at the home of Joan Plowright, which she shared with her husband Laurence Olivier. This is not some static sit-down interview: the women wander around the house, couple off on occasion, and the entire matter is interspersed with rare clips of their early performances.

They do tend to pile on Laurence Olivier, the god their generation of actors with funny stories. At one point when they are winding down, Dame Maggie notes to the director, “Did they tell you how old we are?”

What a thing of beauty and joy to behold for those who have a sense of history and grandeur. For these old ladies represent an age gone by. They were classically trained and paid their dues.

Toward the end we see clips of them receiving so many accolades and awards, including the honor of being made a Dame by Prince Charles or Queen Elizabeth.

Unusual and delightful.

Turn of the Screw Meets Downton Abbey

DATELINE: Strange Fellowes

from time

Julian Fellowes held some out of town tryouts before his big hit with the upper crust Downton Abbey.  Gathering together two of his principals (Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville), Fellowes chose a story that would have been an old-fashioned Walt Disney British movie with Haley Mills in the 1960s. From Time to Time is time enough.

Instead, it was a flop in America—and may be a curio because of the great cult success of the successor to Upstairs/Downstairs. Indeed, Pauline Collins—once the upstairs maid—is now Maggie Smith’s housekeeper. The year is 1944—and young Tolly is sent to stay with his grandmother to stay clear of the war in Manchester.

Tolly (Alex Etel) is no Haley Mills; we leave that sort of thing to Douglas Booth (Sefton). Tolly is a clairvoyant and soon realizes he can weave between timeframes at his granny’s estate. Soon he is spirit in 1810 as distant ancestors have family squabbles over Jacob, a slave boy, that Hugh Bonneville has brought to England as a companion for his blind daughter.

After that, you might expect complications with two astral planes and plenty of dirty laundry. Performances are uniformly superior to whatever passes for movies nowadays; this is a Fellowes production, written and directed by Julian

We give kudos to Dominic West as the butler Caxton, not Carson, and his odd relationship with the son of the manor, Douglas Booth as the foppish jeunesse doree, Sefton. Also around is gardener Timothy Spall in the modern age.

The film falls short of Gosford Park or Downton Abbey, but if you are in the neighborhood, you may as well stop by for tea, ghosts, and sympathy if you have time on your hands.


Eaton Place, Gosford Park, Downton Abbey? High Rent Stuff


going gone gosford


With the final season of Downton Abbey nearly a year away, we decided to give ourselves a fix with the movie that helped Julian Fellowes decide to write the hit TV show.

We refer to Gosford Park, which we did not put on our A list back then. It seemed to be too American filtered—with Robert Altman directing like Agatha Christie had decided to redecorate Upstairs/Downstairs.

By far the worst part of the film was Bob Balaban as the intrusive Hollywood producer at the English shooting party. Heaven knows, he was an anachronism then—and remains one now. He just did not fit in, whether it is bonking his beautiful manservant Ryan Phillipe, or calling butler Alan Bates, Mr. Jennings. It seemed too precious for words.

Yet, the overall effect was to pick out all the actors who found work on Downton Abbey—including Maggie Smith, playing well, Maggie Smith as a dowager.

One of the key effects was the all-star cast. It seemed to bring in every actor who had a role in a British miniseries to those who frequented Ivory-Merchant period movies. It was a great idea, making characters jump out instantly. Without the weekly series to bring familiarity to the characters, Altman hit on a highly effective idea.

Of course, there is something insidious going on—and we see the clues everywhere—from bottles of poison to missing knives. There is murder in the air, and we aren’t even close to the Orient Express.

It helps to have a great cast, clever plotting, and a director at his peak of power. We found this bargain basement Downton, but then again Downton is bargain basement Brideshead Revisited.

If you are into the genre, then it all falls into period place. You know where you are and what to expect. We were not as up or down as the first time around. Gosford Park started to feel comfortable.



Down the Primrose Path to Downton Abbey

Discontent Staff


Having tuned into Downton Abbey again this week, we were amused to see that it is now revealed that Bates the valet has a first name. It’s Norman Bates.

Yes, his wife is surely convinced that he can revert to murderous form (he has already been acquitted of justifiable homicide under the best of tortured logic).

Now he suspects he knows the man who raped his wife.

That dark glare he cast at the visiting valet to the Abbey could mean he will be found in the pigsty with his throat cut within an episode or two.

The Abbey is known for its sudden bursts of fatalism, especially with the end of the season looming.

We can also envision Bates dangling the man off a cliff.

Series creator and chief writer Julian Fellowes is so transparent that he is like a hale fellow well met. Someone introduced him to ratings, and he knows how to score.

In the meantime, the upstairs group faces the long arm of the Teapot Dome Scandal. Yes, it has tentacles all the way to England where Lady Grantham’s brother has run afoul of President Warren G. Harding’s shyster pals.

We expect that he will seek political refuge in Merry Olde England and bring his dotty mother (Shirley MacLaine) with him to liven up the festive exile among the hoi polloi.

We know it’s enough to keep us hanging until next year. And after watching the dowager Countess playing gin rummy, we may take up the old sport. And Thomas, the valet, is chasing stewards aboard ship during the trans-Atlantic crossing.

Walking Across Downton Abbey Roads



Murderers Row? No, Just the Unhappy Staff of Downton Abbey

It’s been a year since we last saw the Upstairs/Downstairs clone of PBS revisited. Of course, Eaton Place was small-time London next to the grandeur of Downton Abbey, now growing up to the jazz of the roaring 1920s.

For them, it’s actually been six months since Matthew’s car hit a tree. Time flies slowly for the suffering wealthy. Those widow’s rags went the way of Scarlett O’Hara at the big Civil War ball, but not in Merry Old England where Lady Mary must grieve till it hurts.

For fans a return to the past could not come soon enough, but does not seem to be in the cards. Your favorite characters may have shipped out to Timbuktu, and your least favorite slugs are still skulking about downstairs.

Yet, we have quickly settled in to another short season that takes us back with a rear view mirror to the age of our grandfathers.

If the two-hour American television premiere taught us anything, it is that the drama this season will center on labor hours and workloads. Yes, the decadent rich must hire and fire with abandon from among workers who are poorly trained, have less loyalty, and are becoming as uppity as Bolshevik revolutionaries.

The grand days of Upstairs/Downstairs where a parlor maid stayed in the parlor has gone the way of beating eggs by hand. A new fangled electric eggbeater may be the biggest metaphor of the night at Downton.

We feel as out of place as Maggie Smith’s old dowager Duchess.

We can hardly wait for the Stock Market Crash of 1929, which sent Eaton Place into foreclosure. Downton Abbey, like Brideshead before it, is heading for a great fall.


Quartet Sounds Like a Rap on Old Age




Maggie Smith with Pauline Collins

Can we really be on a roll of great character driven dramas?

Quartet is a surprise, not because the cast features all the old stars of British series like Upstairs/Downstairs and Downton Abbey, but because the director is not one of those BBC high-brow types. It is American actor Dustin Hoffman.

To gather together a bunch of aged in the wood actors, you need a rather special setting; in this case it is Beecham Home for Musicians, a retirement community of former opera people, from singers to instrumentalists.

Into the fray comes a diva of particular reputation that throws the happy life of comfortable people out of whack as they wait for their onset of Alzheimer’s to send them round the bend.

Maggie Smith’s hoity toity dame comes in with an aura of elite disdain and a tad of self-pity for having come to this last stop: living in a communal setting. Old creative people may have survived because of their talents and abilities, but that doesn’t make waiting for that good night any easier.

A long-standing difference between Maggie Smith’s character and Tom Courtney’s character sends the light drama into deeper tragedy. Does old age ameliorate old feuds?

The movie is bittersweet, casting the standbys of a generation ago in what could be one of their final bows.

It is reminiscent of when Lillian Gish, Bette Davis, and Vincent Price did Whales of August so many years ago as their swan song.

Dustin Hoffman does a lovely, sensitive job with directing the film and surrounding us with beautiful music.

You can find William Russo’s latest collection of movie reviews on under the title MOVIE MASHUP: STREAMING VIEWS & DEMANDING REVIEWS.

Downton Abbey’s Stock Falls Off the Fiscal Cliff


Living in a large country house in England in 1920 apparently is not much different than living in a large white house in Washington, D.C., in 2013.

A fiscal cliff seems to be around the corner for old Downton, where the best offering from a rich American from Newport is throw a buffet picnic for the aristocracy when the stove conks out.

Shirley MacLaine showed up as Mrs. Levinson, the ugly American whose motto is never to touch the capital.

Lord Cawley has lived beyond his means—and now the bills are coming due. It didn’t help that his credit cards are maxed out—and his American wife’s family won’t save the family jewels, let alone the crown jewels.

The more things change, the more they seem to remain the same. If you want escape from financial ruin, you can no longer find it in the manor house at Downton. The bills have mounted like a congressional junket.

The servants are scrimping without pay raises, and the upstairs is beginning to look like the cast of Boardwalk Empire, the HBO gangster show of the same era. Even the old Countess (Maggie Smith) can’t tell a waiter from her son without a drink.

The main difference between the Brideshead crowd and the Capone gang is that no one is offed with improper etiquette, though big bucks are still at stake.

Young Matthew Cawley refuses to save his wife’s legacy with blood money. We foresee more trouble as she peeked at him on the morning of the nuptials, against all that aristocratic tradition.

Shirley MacLaine stormed through the opening episode like Sweet Charity and Irma La Douce on a bender. We will miss her guest appearances during the remainder of Season Three.