Maggie Smith

Downton Abbey

23/09/19

Oh dear. Admittedly, I wasn’t expecting to like this film, but neither was I expecting to despise it quite so much. I hadn’t realised I could feel simultaneously bored and irritated,  that something could rile me so much while sending me to sleep.

I guess I’m not the target audience: I’ve never watched a single episode of the television series. But I enjoyed Gosford Park, the Julian Fellowes-penned movie that laid the foundations for the whole Downton edifice, and no one can deny this is a stellar cast. So, despite the dreadful trailer, I decided I’d give it a go.

I wish I hadn’t. This is a dreadful film. It’s like an interminable Christmas TV special, but I’m not lying on a sofa full of festive food and wine. I’m sitting in the cinema sipping water, wishing I were somewhere else.

Perhaps fans of the series will experience this differently; they’re already invested in the characters and understand their histories. For an outsider, the cast list is bewilderingly vast, the development sketchy. The plot revolves around a royal visit, which sends the household – both upstairs and downstairs – into a tailspin.

It’s not a bad premise, but it’s so artlessly drawn. The servants, it seems, are angry that the king and queen are bringing their own staff. They’re angry that they’re not allowed to toil and strive in ‘their own house’ (it’s NOT their house); furious that they’re to be prevented from skivvying for a few days. Quite aside from the obvious fact that the royal retinue cannot be a surprise to them – they work for the landed gentry; they know how these things work – it’s hard to believe that they wouldn’t be relieved to have the chance to rest up for a while, to peek at the monarchs while others do the donkey work. It’s comforting, I’m sure, for Baron Fellowes to believe the hot-polloi love nothing more than serving their masters. Whether it’s true or not is another matter completely.

The film purports to address this issue, by the way, as ‘revolutionary’ kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera) rails against the need to pander to royalty. Still, she feels the imagined slight as deeply as anyone, and – apart from a few grumblings – fails to upset any apple carts. Likewise, formidable matriarch Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith)’s rousing speech about the changing times fails to address any issues of unfair privilege, coming down in favour of the status quo. Of course, this is absolutely in keeping with her character, but its placing in the film (at the end, after much soul-searching, as the answer to the family’s worries) means that her avowal that the building will be integral to the family – no matter what social changes happen outside – seems like an authorial voice, a pronouncement that landowners are somehow deeply connected – and thus entitled – to their wealth.

Grr.

And – apart from the brief strand about the illegality of homosexuality back in the day – it’s a boring story too.

1 star

Susan Singfield

Nothing Like a Dame

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03/05/18

Take four national treasures. Decant them into a country house and allow to ferment for a couple of days. Throw in four glasses of champagne, then sit back and watch what happens. This is pretty much the recipe for Roger Michell’s charming documentary, Nothing Like a Dame, and, given how unpromising it sounds, it’s amazing how entertaining the results are.

The dames in question are, of course, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, Maggie Smith and Joan Plowright, old friends of long standing, and this is a regular get-together they’ve kept going over the years, meeting up at the country home that Dame Joan shared with her husband, Sir Laurence Olivier.

What the film offers us is a series of anecdotes – many of them laugh-out-loud-funny – and a chance to look back at four astonishing careers, with vintage clips of their first forays into theatre and film. Totally unscripted and extremely relaxed, it’s the cinematic equivalent of a warm hug, fully engaging while it’s happening but not particularly memorable when the credits have rolled. Dame Maggie arguably gets the majority of the best lines, sporting a sarcastic streak that makes the most throwaway remark an absolute killer, while Dame Judi spends much of the film helpless with laughter as she and her friends discuss some of the experiences they shared in those early days. What this is, more than anything else, is a film about ageing and the effects of it. Seeing footage of them, so young, so vital, so filled with enthusiasm for their chosen careers is simultaneously enervating and also vaguely melancholic.

There isn’t much to talk about here in terms of a review, but lovers of theatre and admirers of these four women in particular will find plenty to enjoy. Roger Michell, as he openly admits in the little feature that accompanies the main film, doesn’t so much direct as simply point the camera and allow it to run. This certainly won’t be for everyone, but lovers of theatre – and of the work of the four dames – are in for a treat.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Lady In The Van

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14/11/15

Based on Alan Bennett’s memoir and adapted from his 1999 West End play, The Lady In The Van features Alex Jennings as the great man himself, and is the true story of Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith), an elderly transient who parked her beaten up old Bedford van in Bennett’s driveway and ended up staying there for fifteen years. The film’s a total delight, offering Maggie Smith a gift of a role as the obstinate, curmudgeonly and sometimes downright rude, Miss Shepherd, while Jennings’ assured turn as Bennett is so much more than just an uncannily accurate impersonation; indeed, here we get two Alan Bennetts for the price of one – the man who writes about his life and the one who actually lives it. With this simple but brilliant device, the film has a lot to say about the very nature of writing and the way in which real events are sometimes adapted for the purposes of entertainment. ‘But that didn’t really happen,’ writer Bennett will occasionally announce, like some glum member of a Greek chorus lurking in the background.

The story opens with a brief glimpse into Miss Shepherd’s past, the single traumatic event that initiated her deterioration into vagrancy, and then we witness her arrival in the street in Camden Town where Bennett has just purchased a house. We meet the other inhabitants of the street and witness their reactions to having this tragic creature parked nearby, an interesting mixture of liberal guilt and open disgust. Miss Shepherd’s toiletry arrangements are rudimentary to say the very least, while her open disdain for anyone who tries to help her, would probably move Ghandi to violence.

There’s so much to enjoy here. Bennett’s wry asides are sometimes cripplingly funny, Maggie Smith gives a triumphant performance in a role she was born to play and there are cameos from some big names, including one from each of the boys in the film of The History Boys. While much of the emphasis is on comedy, the film’s latter stages are deeply affecting and more sensitive viewers may find they have occasional recourse to a pack of tissues, and yet the script easily resists cheap sentiment.

Perfectly judged, beautifully acted and cannily scripted, there’s really not much here to criticise – just plenty to enjoy.

5 Stars

Philip Caveney

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

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05/03/15

In 2011, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel made the cinema industry sit up and take notice. Here was a modestly budgeted film that raked in a hefty profit, but more significantly, it took it from the kind of mature audience that cinema usually fails to attract (i.e. not just 12 year old boys). So it was inevitable that sooner, rather than later, there’d be a sequel. And here it is, complete with a title that sounds worryingly like a self-fulfilling prophecy. It should be remembered that the original film was based on a rather good source novel by Deborah Moggach. This one appears to be an original screenplay, if by original, you mean borrowing an idea that famously appeared in an episode of Fawlty Towers. The kindest thing you can say about it, is that it’s a curate’s egg of a film, good in parts but those parts are few and far between.

Sonny (Dev Patel) is soon to marry his fiancé, Sunaina (Tina Desai), but first he plans to expand his operation by opening a second hotel and at the film’s inception, has gone to America to seek finance. In this enterprise he’s aided by the caustic Mrs Donnelly (Maggie Smith) her character slightly diluted from her original bitchy incarnation, but nonetheless still awarded most of the funniest lines. Meanwhile the usual suspects from Marigold 1 parade around having affairs with each other (Celia Imrie’s character, Madge, appears to have turned into a borderline good time girl,) while Evelyn (Judy Dench) and Douglas (Bill Nighi) are still failing to connect, even when it’s perfectly clear that the two of them are simply made for each other. Into this hotbed of geriatric passion wanders Guy Chambers (Richard Gere) who might or might not, be the hotel inspector who can grant Sonny’s expansion plan. Before you can say, ‘Basil Fawlty,’ Guy has the hots for Sonny’s widowed mother and much (alleged) hilarity ensues. The problem is, that this is all so obvious, it might as well have been performed as a series of semaphore manoeuvres. A last minute ‘twist’ fails to offer any surprises whatsoever. And what’s happened to Sonny’s character? In Marigold 1, he was charming in a bumbling, hapless sort of way, but here he’s a car crash of a person who can’t open his mouth without offending everybody in the vicinity.

On one hand, TSBEMH deserves respect for daring to portray senior citizens as genuine characters with real lives and real concerns; on the other hand, points must be deducted for its outdated portrayal of India as a country that has somehow never escaped the bonds of colonialism. The first film managed to skirt skilfully around these issues, but this time it just wades on in, seemingly without thinking. The climactic wedding features lots of dancing and larking about, but also comes with a large dollop of sentimentality, which once again, the first film was careful to avoid.

So, second best by name and certainly second best by nature. Ideally, the film makers should have gratefully accepted their groundbreaking hit and moved on to another idea, but of course, the movie business will always respond to a hit by throwing more money in it’s general direction. Can we ‘look forward’ to The Third and Final Exotic Marigold Hotel? God, I hope not.

3 stars

Philip Caveney