Monday, February 18, 2013

Review: Downton Abbey

(This is the third of my reviews for the Period Drama Challenge.)

Oh, Downton Abbey! What conflicting emotions and opinions you raise in me! The emotional roller coaster plot you have driven me through over these 3 seasons has caused nearly as tumultuous agony as the decision over whether or not I should continue watching. That beautiful theme song begins, and I am torn with both anticipation and dread.

The story opens in 1912. The Earl of Grantham is unfortunately lacking in sons, his rich American wife only bore him three lovely daughters, who, as females, are not legally allowed to inherit the estate. When the next heir to the estate perishes in the tragic sinking of the Titanic, his replacement doesn't seem nearly as suitable... as an heir, or as the eldest daughter's fiancee. Heartlessly careless of her fiancee's death, Lady Mary immediately begins the hunt for another rich suitor. That means she will next set her cap at Cousin Matthew, the new heir presumptive. Or will she?

Matthew Crawley doesn't really want to be next heir. He was perfectly happy in his previous situation as a lawyer, and is not interested in learning how to run the estate and be the next Earl of Grantham. Thrust into a world where a grown man never dresses himself, he doesn't know what to do with his new valet, and feels perfectly ridiculous being waited on hand and foot by numerous servants. He and his mother, Isobel struggle to settle and fit into their new world.

Speaking of numerous servants, they are the other half of the show. The drama flows downstairs as well as upstairs. Carson, the butler, and Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, are in charge of their own domain of footmen and maids, some kind, some a little lacking in sense, and some downright mean. Lord Grantham's new valet, Mr. Bates, uses a cane and has a mysterious past. Lady Grantham's maid, O'Brien and Thomas, one of the footmen, cruelly target him, while one of the maids finds him intriguing.

As the plot twisted and tangled on, I eventually realized that under the guise of a period drama, I had really gotten hooked on a soap opera, but by then, it was too late. I had to keep watching. It was too intriguing. This show will suck you in. You've been warned.

*Spoiler warning from here on.*

Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) has been with the family for years, and probably imagines he's part of the family. He runs the household staff well, with old-fashioned rigor and poise. Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) is calm and level-headed, helping to balance his sometimes over-bearing determination for perfection.

Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna (Joanne Froggat) fall in love, but something from his mysterious past causes him to push her away. Finally, we learn that he's already married to an awful woman. He eventually proposes to Anna anyway, though, hoping he can pay his wife Vera to divorce him. She refuses, and threatens to bring scandal on the Downton family if he doesn't leave with her. Finally, she commits suicide and frames Bates. Bates and Anna marry before he is imprisoned for murder, and Anna does everything she can to prove his innocence.

Thomas (Rob James-Collier) is the gay footman who just won't leave! He and O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran), lady Grantham's maid spread malicious evil wherever they go, making trouble for everyone else, sometimes in cahoots, but always looking out for their selfish means. I was hoping they wouldn't be around very long, but sadly, anytime it seems like they might be gone, they just turn up again. Like bad shillings.

The other footman from the first season didn't last as long, unfortunately. I really like William (Thomas Howes) and Thomas torments him mercilessly. William falls for Daisy, the kitchen maid, and even though Thomas is gay, he intentionally competes with William for her attention. William wins out in the end though, Daisy reluctantly becomes engaged to him before he leaves for the war, and when he is mortally injured in the war, he urges her to marry him on his deathbed so that she'll receive a widow's pension.

Daisy (Sophie McShera) unfortunately felt pressured by Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nichol) to give William the encouragement of an engagement to carry him through the war, and then she feels guilty for marrying him and letting him die believing that she loved him, when she doesn't think she did. She is pretty silly, and easily manipulated. Mrs. Patmore tries to look out for her, and impart a little sense, but she can be harsh, and Daisy is a little scared of her.

 As the show goes on, visitors come and go, romance blossoms around ever corner; heartbreak and scandal may also abound, but one thing that can always be counted on is this: the Dowager Countess Violet will always have a dry, witty comment on her tongue, perfectly delivered in a proper British accent. Maggie Smith is wonderful in her role as Lord Grantham's mother. She is old-fashioned, haughty and sometimes callous, but she usually means well.

Cousin Isobel (Penelope Wilton) finds frequent reasons to clash with Lady Violet. The daughter of a doctor, she has a knowledge of medicine, and uses her knowledge to quickly become involved in her new realm. She likes to take charge anywhere and anytime she can, and this causes some problems with Lady Grantham, also.

Lord and Lady Grantham, played by Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern, are well-cast. Robert married Cora for her money; he needed funds to keep the estate afloat. What was a marriage of convenience became love, though, and they manage to maintain a fairly good marriage most of the time. I like Hugh Bonneville, but his character increasingly becomes more annoying in my opinion. Lady Grantham can be unwise in her plans for her daughters, but she does truly love them.

Their three daughters have been raised as British ladies. The youngest, Lady Sybil is sweet and enthusiastic about life, but not always the most obedient. She becomes interested in politics, and gets the chauffeur, Branson, in trouble with her father when she accompanies him to a political rally. She almost causes Branson to lose his job when, under the guise of attending a charity meeting, Sybil goes to attend the election results and gets injured when the rally becomes a mob. She learns to cook, becomes a nurse in the war and falls in love with Branson. Her sisters catch her eloping, and convince her to wait, but she and Branson eventually marry with Lord Grantham's reluctant consent.

Lady Edith, the middle daughter played by Laura Carmichael, sometimes seems to be invisible. She can be quite spiteful, but eventually comes into her own when Downton Abbey is turned into a convalescent home for wounded war officers. She finally finds an older man that she wants to marry, and she thinks she has him convinced, but he finds that he can't go through with it, and leaves her at the altar, not wanting to ruin her life. Her grandmother encourages her: "Stop whining, and find something to do!" So she gets a job writing for a newspaper.

Lady Mary is very cold and calculating at the beginning, making it difficult to like her, but she eventually starts to thaw. She gets into a scandal with a visiting Turkish dignitary when he visits her room in the middle of the night, and dies in her bed. Her mother and maid help her to drag him back to his room to cover the impropriety, and we see her scared and insecure. That unfortunate circumstance causes her lots of problems, but seems to be the turning point for her character.

Matthew is played by Dan Stevens, and I confess he is the reason I originally began watching Downton Abbey. I loved his performance in Sense and Sensibility (2008) so much; I couldn't wait to see him in another role. He didn't disappoint me. He gave Matthew convincing depth and complexity.

 Even though Lady Mary was a horrible woman at first, I couldn't help hoping for them to fall in love from the beginning, as of course, they must. Though many obstacles appeared, and other plot threads tried to divide my attention, I remained fixated on what I consider the main plot line. Isn't it supposed to be? There are many twists and turns, other lovers, misunderstandings, arguments and drama, but I knew I must eventually be satisfied. They had to have a "happily ever after" eventually, I just knew it.

Whenever the Matthew/Mary plot wasn't going the way I wanted, I consoled myself with the scenery and costumes. I've already included some photos with glimpses of the elegant finery, so here's my favorite shot of the estate. Highclere Castle is a lovely shooting location.

You can never drool over too many gorgeous dresses, so here's some costume shots.

Lady Sybil's daring new outfit.
Some lovely summer dresses.

Dinner dresses
Dressed for dinner

Lovely red gowns
Lady Mary in a dreamy green gown

Wedding gowns
I think Downton Abbey would have made a great miniseries. If they had started with an end in sight, and hadn't tried to drag it out as long as possible, they could have cut some of the unnecessary conflict and had a nice 7 or 8 hour miniseries. It's too bad when the quest for more money is obviously a higher priority than making quality entertainment. The original storyline was pretty good, but I could tell that they intended to drag it out by the end of the first season. It took them to the end of the second season to get around to what I was waiting for: the proposal. I was beginning to despair, but it finally came!

By the time we finally got to that wonderful moment, I was becoming quite weary of the emotional turmoil this show causes, but when the third season finally came around, I was willing to watch for moments like these:

I stumbled across a spoiler for the final episode of season 3, and if you know what happens, then you understand why it was all I needed to convince me that it is time to get off Downton Abbey. I couldn't watch all of the last episode. There have been so many thrills, but the fleeting sweet moments, beautiful costumes and delightful scenery haven't completely outweighed the bitterness and emotionally scarring sadness in my opinion. And so I step away from this seemingly endless melodrama trying to forget the parts that went all wrong, and clinging desperately to my favorite memories.

Like this one.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Review: The 39 Steps (2008)

(This is the second of my reviews for the Period Drama Challenge.)

The 39 Steps is a remake of an old Hitchcock film, starring Rupert Penry-Jones (Persuasion, 2007). A bored young man in London just before the beginning of World War I suddenly finds himself thrust into a thrilling adventure with murder, spies, a notebook containing a secret code of vital importance, and of course, an attractive young woman. 

I first saw this movie when it came on Masterpiece a few years ago... I don't think I saw it as early as 2007, so it wasn't when it was first aired, but it has been a while since I'd seen it. I remember watching it and the classic Hitchcock and not enjoying either of them as well as I had expected. When Sarah decided to watch it again, I figured I may as well, since I couldn't remember what I hadn't liked about it.

It starts out nicely, when a terribly bored Hannay coming home after a night out is burst in upon by Scudder, a British Secret Service agent who is being chased by German spies. He gives Hannay his notebook with encoded details about what he's discovered, and charges him to deliver the notebook to his superior, Captain Kell. Minutes later, the German spies rush in and murder Scudder in Hannay's living room. Hannay escapes, and runs into a police officer who immediately comes back to the scene of the crime with Hannay, but doesn't believe his story. Hannay is accused of murder, on the run from the law in his own country, and chased by the German spies, who want the notebook.

Unsuccessful at contacting Captain Kell, Hannay flees with the notebook, where the chase scenes become almost ridiculously numerous. Police on the train, cops with bloodhounds, agents in a car and even a biplane. I thought the scenery during these sequences was quite lovely.

Enter the attractive young woman, suffragette Victoria Sinclair (Lydia Leonard) and her brother, aspiring politician. When they nearly run him over as he tumbles into the street in front of their car, Hannay immediately pretends to be the political man they ask about so that he can escape his pursuers.

 The story continues with more chases, threats, capture, explosions. There is one excruciatingly drawn-out and over-dramatized scene at a home where Hannay and Victoria stay while they're running. They pretend to be married so they can get a meal and sleep indoors, out of the rain. They change into pajamas and tend to each other's scrapes while suggestive music plays, but nothing inappropriate occurs. There is another uncomfortable scene with a great deal of kissing, but nothing worse.

Intriguing plot twists abound at the end, all very interesting, but it feels rushed; I think it would have done better with more than 90 minutes. It is based on a novel, which would be interesting to read and compare. I imagine that the 1935 Hitchcock is more true to the original story. 

Overall, I think the acting was kind of bland, but it's an interesting little action/adventure, and I enjoyed it more the second time. It's worth watching once, at least as long as you don't expect too much.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Review: Pride & Prejudice (2005)

(This is the first of my reviews for the Period Drama Challenge.)

I had already read the book and seen the BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice (1995) more than once when Pride & Prejudice (2005) came out in movie theaters. Unfortunately, at the naive age of 14, it did not then occur to me to worry that they might not do justice to Jane Austen's beloved classic. I went into the movie theater with the highest of eager expectations, and left somewhat confused and let down.

In general I think the script is lacking in wit and crispness. Deborah Moggach originally tried to be faithful to Austen's dialogue, but the director, Joe Wright, didn't want to be "too reverential." I beg your pardon? You cannot be "too reverential" of Jane Austen! The few direct quote lines that were left in did not make up for all the ridiculous, modern-sounding lines that held all the spark of any trashy, American chick flick. I am a devoted Jane Austen fan, so I feel like there isn't much more to be said about this film. However, I will continue with a thorough review, but I must give a fair warning that I have quite an aversion to this movie.

Wright supposedly has a dislike for the empire waists of the Regency era, so they set the film back into the late 18th century, and did whatever they wished with the costumes. Setting it earlier, around the time that Jane was purported to have begun her first draft, I must begrudgingly admit makes some sense, although I am partial to Regency fashion myself. The hair and costumes were intentionally less historically accurate so as to appeal to a modern audience.

Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen do not all suit Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy in my estimation. Matthew Macfadyen could possibly have done well if they had given him some decent lines and done something tolerable with his hair. Also, he supposedly did NOT read the book, preferring to be guided by the script only! No wonder his attempt at Mr. Darcy fell flat. Keira Knightley was probably hopeless from the beginning, but they could have tried giving her some decent lines and more polished hair too.

Behold the awful hair. Also, this picture of Mr. Darcy reminds me of the sulky, pouty look Macfadyen tends to express through the whole movie, and this shot is from the scene featuring one of his most groan-worth lines: "...If, however, your feelings have changed, I will have to tell you: you have bewitched me, body and soul, and I love, I love, I love you. I never wish to be parted from you from this day on." I could also rant for a significant amount of time about many aspects this scene. Neither of them are properly dressed, early in the morning. They just happen to meet in a field? And Keira Knightley responds to his sappy declaration with something like "well, then.... your hands are cold." Okay...? Is that supposed to mean "yes"? But I am getting ahead of myself.

The other Bennet girls aren't nearly as bad, Rosamund Pike is lovely as Jane, and Carey Mulligan does a nice job with the few lines Kitty is given. Talulah Riley and Jena Malone satisfactorily fulfill their roles as Mary and Lydia. Malone isn't quite as wild and silly as I imagine Lydia, but she is a fabulous flirt. The scene where Lydia throws her handkerchief amongst the marching officers is quite amusing.

I generally like Simon Woods, but due to the unfortunate script, he plays Mr. Bingley as an absolute buffoon. A loveable buffoon, but still quite painfully idiotic at points, and just not at all like Mr. Bingley is supposed to be. I can't appreciate the character at all.

My patience and enthusiasm fails me to go through all the characters, I must just mention Kelly Reilly who played Miss Bingley very well, with wonderful polish and refinement and perfectly detestable pride. I also love her hair color, and in general she was favored with acceptable hair styles. She was also fortunate enough to be dressed in Regency fashion, since she was rich enough to afford the newest fashions.

The music by Dario Marianelli is beautiful. I have the sheet music, and I love to play it. It doesn't sound much like authentic music, but as I've mentioned already, the filmmakers intentionally threw out authenticity, so no surprise there. The scenery is also beautiful, although I was struck during the most recent viewing that Pemberley looked very contrived. 

(Austen describes the body of water in front of the house as being "a stream .... without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned." These are the kind of nit-picky things that bother me.) Longbourn was not a farm as several shots seem to insinuate, again, for the sake of a modern audience, they wished to over-emphasize the difference in social status between the Bennets and their richer acquaintances.

The two most vital scenes to Elizabeth and Darcy's relationship were ruined in an attempt to make the story more sensually romantic, ever catering to the modern audience. Darcy's first proposal being changed from an emotionally charged and impassioned discussion in Hunsford parsonage to a silly scene with them both dripping wet in the middle of a rainstorm after church. After their stilted and angry discussion, they seem to almost kiss before Darcy leaves.

What is that?!?!?
 The second proposal is changed from a serene walk in the afternoon to an improper, nearly undressed morning meeting in a damp field, where more poorly scripted lines abound, as I mentioned earlier. Even if I found the rest of the movie enjoyable, nothing could make up for the insipid degradation these two scenes received. Also, I would be remiss if I neglected to mention the completely disgusting end scene. I discovered when researching for this review that we owe the addition of that scene to the insatiable appetite Americans have for sensuous romantic scenes - as if this movie didn't contain enough of that already. It was eventually included in the British version also, and has become an indelible part of the movie. After suffering through that scene once, I could never bring myself to watch it again.

Over the years since I first viewed this movie, I have tried to appreciate what I've come to call "the Keira Knightley Pride & Prejudice" as simply a different adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, but I have been unsuccessful. Each viewing only leaves me wondering "why did I just watch that?" with the intense desire to cleanse my mind with the wonderfully accurate BBC miniseries, or the book itself. I have finally come to the irreversible opinion that this adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is a feminized and Hollywood-style mutilated version of a classic. They simply can't take a story and let historical authenticity and simplicity speak for itself, they must inject their secular values into everything, and turn a wonderful story into nothing more than a plastic modern romance full of sensuality rather than intellect and wit. Since that is what the film-makers apparently intended to do, I have no qualms with rejecting it as not worthy of being considered a Jane Austen adaptation and regarding it as rubbish. 

If you want a cheap romance like Bridget Jones' Diary or actually happen to like Keira Knightley, by all means, indulge away. Just don't look for Jane Austen's wonderful novel, you'll only find tatters and shreds that would reduce a true Jane Austen fan to tears of agony.


Saturday, February 2, 2013

Period Drama Challenge

Old-Fashioned Charm

 I first discovered this challenge when I was visiting some blogs celebrating 200 years of Pride and Prejudice, and I saw the Period Drama Challenge button on the sidebar at Elegance of Fashion and followed the link over to the hostess at Old-Fashioned Charm. I think I've convinced my sister Sarah to participate also, on her blog How To Watch A Movie. We're jumping in a little late, but I'm pretty sure we're fanatic enough to fit in 12 to 15 period dramas before July 7. I'm looking forward to the motivation to post reviews for more movies, since I don't usually do reviews, and also the incentive to watch some period dramas that we haven't seen yet, but have been meaning to view sometime!

Review number one shall be posted sometime this week, I hope! It's not too late, if you want to join in, hop on over to Old-Fashioned Charm and get the full scoop! 

Reviews so far:
3. Downton Abbey (3 seasons)