onsdag 23 oktober 2013

From Time to Time - Not quite Downton for kids (but very nice)

When you see there's a film around starring Maggie Smith and Hugh Bonneville, scripted by Julian Fellowes and obviously taking place in historical times, you could be forgiven for thinking that its main market is meant to be the Downton crowd. And superficially, there are similarities between Downton and the time-travelling tale slash cosy ghost story From Time to Time. After all, it contains these elements:

  • A matriarch with a touch of steel and a heart of gold (Maggie Smith)
  • A benevolent but somewhat clueless patriarch (Hugh Bonneville)
  • An atmospheric country house that's belonged to the same family for centuries
  • A wise housekeeper
  • A romance between a morally upstanding servant (gardener, in this case) and a loyal maid who stands by him in times of distress
  • A handsome, unreliable manservant
Apart from Smith and Bonneville, there are other familiar Downton faces. Allen Leech (Branson) plays the righteous gardener, and I'm sure I glimpsed Mrs Bird in the kitchens. But what a Downton fan suffering from withdrawal symptoms must bear in mind when watching this film is that it's really in another genre entirely. From Time to Time is a classical children's story, and the adults above serve mostly as a backdrop for the adventures of the child protagonists. It is big on atmosphere, negligible on character development. It contains tales of fires, hidden passages and lost treasure and has more in common with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe than with any costume drama featuring grown-up concerns such as marriage, inheritance, thwarted desire, work rivalry and, er, cricket.

The central character, a boy called Tolly, is sent to stay a while at his paternal grandmother's house, a grand place called Green Knowe. It is the end of the second world war, and Tolly's mother is trying to trace his father, who is missing in action. Tolly refuses to admit that his father might be dead and is initially suspicious of his grandmother, who didn't think his mum was good enough for his dad (and still doesn't). However, grandmother and grandson bond over an exciting story from Green Knowe's history, especially after Tolly starts to see ghosts of the Regency folk that his grandmother's told him about. He is even catapulted back in time and witnesses key scenes of the drama. He befriends the then family's youngest child, a blind girl called Susan, and her companion, the plucky runaway slave boy Jacob, and is able to be of use to the goodies generally. Will he be able to find the lost jewels that could save his grandmother from selling the family home?

Yup, it's that kind of story - sweet, morally straightforward, and conveying the sense of magic when another world (this time, the past rather than a land containing witches and somewhat pompous lions) opens up before a weary child hero. It's adapted from the book The Chimneys of Green Knowe, apparently one in a series of well-loved children's books about the house in question. I love children's adventures like this, but sometimes the clear-cut Little-Lord-Fauntleroy morals of the piece riled me, rather. I mean, a blind girl and a plucky runaway slave boy? Get away - could the dice be more loaded? Needless to say, I felt some defiant sympathy for Susan's bad big brother Sefton because 1) his Hindley-like jealousy of Jacob is not entirely unfounded (and I think that spur-nicking was jolly mean) 2) he is played by Douglas Booth who really, truly, is a looker 3) the odds are so ludicrously stacked against him 4) he's called Sefton. Gettit? As in Uncle Sefton in A Family at War? Bonneville's character's shrewish wife has a case too, in my view: she is stuck in a country house with neighbours who despise her (she's a Dutch diamond merchant's daughter) while her husband is away most of the time. The moment hubby comes home, he undermines her authority and foists a nobly saved foundling on her. No wonder she feels like bitching - and she bitches a lot (do unhappily married couples really bicker as much as they do in films and on telly? It sounds exhausting).

For all my reflex-like defence of the baddies, though, I must admit that they are paper-thin characters, and this applies even more to the villainous butler Caxton. He doesn't have a character at all. The only unexpected thing about him is that he is played by Dominic West - not my type, but admittedly a far cry from the eye-patched, livid-scarred Bad Servants you otherwise come across in tales like this. But he has no inner life, no motivation - except primitive greed and, at the end, an even more primitive vindictive streak - and no sliver of a back story. How did he become a butler in such comparatively young years? Why does he pal up with bad boy Sefton? Is he really the lover of the lady of the house, or is that just gossip? This and many other questions remain unanswered. You could argue that this is supposed to make Caxton cooly mysterious, but my guess is we're just not meant to care. Here, the film's roots in a children's book become apparent. Caxton is the bad guy, and that's all we need to know. Still, better an empty husk of a sinister manservant than no sinister manservant at all.

I really enjoyed From Time to Time, as will those who like stories in the style of the above-mentioned Lion, Witch, A Little Princess and Little Lord Fauntleroy. But Downton it ain't.