Tag Archives: British

Downton Abbey

20 Sep

‘Downton Abbey’: King and queen are coming, and it’s a roiling pain upstairs and downstairs

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A quaint, tight little package that should warm the nostalgic hearts of loyalists of the PBS series that shut down four years ago, “Downton Abbey” is more of an apt TV sendoff than, say, the “Sex and the City” films (and it turns out Michael Engler, the director here, helmed episodes of each). For one thing, the plot is focused on closure rather than future opportunities, and it doesn’t play like an extended episode.

The intrinsic charm of “Downton Abbey,” small or big, has always been its focus on those doing the cooking, tidying and fluffing in the bowels of the grand estate. It’s post-World War I, yet the entitlements of the feudal past remain – if just barely, as the modern world and its complicated economics are crashing in to alter the staid landscape. The earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his wife, the countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) are decent manse overlords, as manse overloads go; after taking in the series (I’m a dabbler, I must confess) and Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” (2001, also written by Julien Fellowes, who won an Oscar for his effort) you wonder if all such passed-on grand estates are so civil and seamlessly run, with dignity between class barriers.

Sorry, I digress. Most everybody at the Abbey is on fine terms and happy at the onset, except maybe Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery), who frets about the mounting financial pressures of the infringing modern era and relentless upkeep of the manor. Then a neat but stressful gem gets dropped in their lap: King George V and Queen Mary are coming to Yorkshire for a visit and will take up digs at the Abbey. “Oh happy days” is the immediate reaction, but faces dim when it’s announced the Abbey’s staff will be replaced top to bottom by the king’s staff, who carry very little respect or empathy for the Granthamers (“I am not a butler, I am the King’s Page of the Backstairs,” one brassy prick retorts) and that is where the heat for the film begins to build and ultimately the tinder gets lit – when the Abbey lot decide they’re not going to take it. It’s good stiff-upper-lip oneupmanship three tiers down, while above, Maggie Smith’s persnickety grand dame Lady Violet has it in for Lady Maud (Imelda Staunton), who bestows too much public fondness for her maid.

More harrowing is the ferreting out of a possible assassination attempt and Barrow (Robert James-Collier), the onetime footman promoted to butler, diving into Yorkshire’s gay underground and the absurdly Draconian (and sad) reaction by authorities during a bust. It’s the film’s most biting (and practically lone) barb of social commentary.

Where fans of the series might feel shorted is that there’s too much packed in to too little. Character and conflict are pushed by plot, and screen time feels meted by slivers of the clock and not significance. What’s up there feels like it could go another hour (it’s right at two) or have a Part II. Also, mind you, Engler is no Altman, who with “Short Cuts”(1993), “Nashville” (1975) and “Gosford Park” to prove the point, was a master of the hydra-headed narrative. Engler does a fine enough job, and to be fair “Gosford” was built from the bottom up (in collaboration with Altman actor/writer Bob Balaban), whereas this “Abbey” is a retrofit for the faithful. It’s not grand, but it does do what it does with dignity and grace.

Beast

19 May

‘Beast’: Suspicions run wild after murder, and something about Moll draws the mob

 

A curious yet apt title for this taut psycho-drama that plays effectively with the viewer’s sense of perception. Eerie, foreboding and profoundly disorienting, “Beast,” like many of its beguiling characters, becomes something of a shapeshifter; it revolves around the struggles of a troubled young woman named Moll (Jessie Buckley), blessed with fiery red locks constantly tousled across her porcelain face by the relentless wind that whips the quaint U.K. isle of Jersey she’s relegated to – and seemingly unable to leave. The setting, so alluring and ominous, becomes an integral player in developments. Jersey’s the kind of remote, off-the-grid British burg that Sam Peckinpah might have shot “Straw Dogs” in had his location scouts stumbled upon it.

Moll lives with her controlling mother (an icy-cold Geraldine James), who stalks her progeny and questions her every whereabouts despite the fact Moll’s a mature woman with a full-time job (as a tour bus guide). Given mum’s iron glove, moving out would be a good idea, but there’s that troubled/damaged thing. Can Moll truly be on her own, or does she need constant monitoring? We get the answer to that quickly as Moll goes clubbing one night into the wee hours with a scruffy drifter/handyman by the name of Pascal (Johnny Flynn). Elsewhere, news blips on the TV tell us there’s been a recent murder of a girl nearby, and another girl is missing. The short list of suspects the film and police pursue includes Moll – she had a violent incident back in high school that haunts her – and Pascal. Moll may be somewhat lost and misunderstood, but there’s always deep down inside an ember of hopeful ebullience, and she becomes spirited at the prospect that she and Pascal might hie away together for happier destinations. Darker matters beyond legal suspicion cloud the notion, such as nightmarish incursions that come in the middle of the night or Moll’s ill-conceived insistence on showing up at one of the victim’s funerals. Ultimately “Beast” becomes a tug of war between hope and despair, with an ever-shifting emotional landscape.

First-time filmmaker Michael Pearce weaves in themes of isolation, alienation and defiance that clearly mine the essence of Roman Polanski’s 1965 psycho-thriller “Repulsion” (1965) and, to a lesser wow factor, Julia Roberts’ 1991 hit, “Sleeping with the Enemy.” It’s a subtle borrowing, as Pearce without doubt forges his own, unique authorship. Like Polanski, his true ace in the hole is his lead. Not enough can be said of Buckley’s ability to bounce palpably from a wallflower-esque ingenue to romantically ripe hopeful and later, something more disturbed and even menacing. It’s an incredible load to bear, but Buckley does it without any letdown. By the middle of the film Moll’s psychological state and Pearce’s moody ambiance become symbiotic extensions of one other, heightening the already fraught state with arthouse poetics.

As far as the title goes, there’s plenty of monsters to be had in “Beast.” The killer, for one, but also – and perhaps more to the point – the insular judgmental folk of the remote isle so willing to condemn a fellow human based on mob rage or a simple whisper from the TV.