“DOWNTON ABBEY” – Series Three (2012) Retrospective

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“DOWNTON ABBEY” – Series Three (2012) Retrospective

It took me a while to get around watching Series Three of “DOWNTON ABBEY”. I had been inclined to watch it, while it aired on PBS last winter. But in the end, I decided to wait until the DVD release was offered through Netflix. 

I suspect that some of my reluctance to watch the show’s Series Three could be traced to my major disappointment over the lackluster Series Two. In fact, a part of me is amazed that the series’ shoddy look at World War I could end up with an Emmy nomination for Best Drama. But I figured that series creator, Julian Fellowes, would make up for the Emmy-nominated disaster known as Series Two with an improved third season. In the end, Series Three proved to be an improvement. Somewhat.

What did I like about Series Three of “DOWNTON ABBEY”? It possessed three plot lines that I found a good deal to admire:

1) The estate’s financial crisis
2) Valet Thomas Barrow’s infatuation with new footman Jimmy Kent
3) Lady Sybil Branson’s death

Downton Abbey’s financial crisis, kick-started by Robert, the Earl of Grantham’s disastrous investment into Canada’s Grand Trunk Railway, which truly emphasized the peer’s inability to handle money and his estate. In fact, this story line also exposed Lord Grantham’s other flaws – stubborness and inability to move with the times – in full force. Actually, the third story line involving the death of his youngest daughter, Lady Sybil Branson – of childbirth, did not paint a pretty picture of the peer, considering that his decision to ignore Dr. Clarkson’s medical advice led to Lady Sybil’s tragic death, following the birth of his oldest grandchild. The plot regarding Thomas Barrow’s feelings for Jimmy Kent allowed Fellowes to explore the status of homosexuals during early 20th century Britain. The plot surrounding Lady Sybil’s death in Episode Five not only proved to be heartbreaking, but also featured fine performances from the departing Jessica Findlay-Brown as the doomed Lady Sybil; Allen Leech as Sybil’s husband Tom Branson; David Robb as the desperate Dr. Clarkson; Rob James-Collier as a grieving Thomas Barrow; Hugh Bonneville as the Earl of Grantham; a guest appearance by Tim Pigott-Smith as the society doctor recruited by Lord Grantham to treat Lady Sybil; and especially Elizabeth McGovern, who I believe gave the best performance as Lady Sybil’s grieving mother, the American-born Countess of Grantham.

But even these first-rate story lines were marred by some questionable writing. Lord Grantham’s bad investment and financial loss had the family flailing for a bit, until salvation appeared in the form of a possible inheritance for the peer’s heir presumptive, son-in-law Matthew Crawley. The latter learned that Reginald Swire, the recently dead father of his late fiancée had named him as an heir to his vast fortune. Matthew felt reluctant to accept money from Lavinia Swire’s money, considering what happened before her death in Series Two. Most fans expressed frustration at Matthew’s reluctance to accept the money and save Downton Abbey. I felt nothing but contempt toward Fellowes for utilizing this ludicrous plot point to save the estate from financial ruin. I found it absolutely tasteless that Matthew would inherit money from the father of the fiancée who witnessed him kissing his future wife Lady Mary Crawley, before succumbing of the Spanish Flu. This was just tackiness beyond belief.

And I wish Fellowes had found another way for Lord Grantham or Matthew to acquire the cash needed to save the estate. Lady Sybil’s death and Lord Grantham’s participation in it led to a serious marital estrangement between the peer and his wife, who angrily blamed him for ignoring Dr. Clarkson’s medical advice. Lady Grantham’s anger lasted through most of Episode Six, until the Dowager Lady Grantham convinced the good doctor to lie to her son and daughter-in-law that his medical advice may not have saved Lady Sybil in the end, ending Lady Grantham’s anger and the marital strife between the pair. I suspect the majority of the series’ fans were relieved that Lord and Lady Grantham’s marriage had been saved before it could get any worse. I was not. I saw this as Fellowes’ reluctance or inability to fully explore the negative consequences of Sybil’s death. Even worse, I saw this as artistic cowardice on Fellowes’ part. A martial conflict between Robert and Cora could have spelled a dramatic gold mine.

Even the Thomas Barrow-Jimmy Kent storyline was marred by aspects that led me to shake my head in disbelief. The entire matter began with a minor feud between former friends Thomas and lady’s maid Sarah O’Brien over the former’s unwillingness to help the latter’s nephew, Alfred Nugent, with his duties. One, why would Thomas refuse to help the nephew of his only friend on the estate? And two, this little incident led O’Brien to escalate the feud, leading her to set up a scheme that would expose Thomas’ homosexuality? It seemed to come out of no where. This story line ended with more head scratching for me. First, Fellowes had Thomas sneaking into Jimmy’s bedroom for some petting and caresses, making for the former look like a sexual molester. One would think after his experiences with the Duke of Crowborough and Mr. Pamuk would have led him to be more careful. And following his exposure, Thomas faced losing his job and being arrested and convicted for his sexual preference. And while he faced personal censure from Mr. Carson, Alfred and the object of his desire, Jimmy Kent; most of Downton Abbey’s inhabitants seemed unusually tolerate of Thomas’homosexuality. Only Lord Grantham’s tolerance seemed to ring true, in light of his comments.

But there were other aspects of Series Three that failed to impress me. I read somewhere that Dan Stevens had informed Fellowes that he would not return for a fourth season, before they started filming this season. Judging from most of Stevens’ clunky dialogue in many of the episode, I got the feeling that Fellowes took his revenge on the actor. Stevens’ last lines following the birth of Matthew and Lady Mary’s son seemed like pure torture – “Can this hot and dusty traveler enter?” and “Oh my darling, I feel like I’ve swallowed fireworks!”. Fortunately, Stevens was provided with one scene in which he truly shone – when Matthew lost his temper over his father-in-law’s refusal to consider modernizing Downton Abbey’s estate management. And Matthew’s death in that last episode was one of the most clumsily directed sequences I have ever seen during the series’ three seasons, so far. Many critics and viewers blamed Shirley MacLaine for the poor characterization of Lady Grantham’s American mother, Martha Levinson. Even Fellowes went so far as to claim in this 2012 article that Americans cannot do period drama. Frankly, I found his comment full of shit and those critics and viewers unwilling to admit that the producer-writer did a piss-poor job in his creation of Martha’s character. Poor MacLaine was saddled with some ridiculous dialogue that no actor or actress – no matter how good they are – can overcome. Look at what happened to Dan Stevens. And he is British. Like Stevens, MacLaine had her moment in the sun, when her character saved a disastrous dinner party-in-the-making by transforming it into a cocktail party in Episode Two.

Poor Brendan Coyle and Joanne Foggett were saddled with the long and tedious story line surrounding Bates’ time in prison and his wife Anna’s efforts to exonerate. Every time that particular plot appeared on the screen, I found myself forced to press the Fast-Forward button of my DVD remote control. When Bates finally left prison, he and Anna proved that their romance had become incredibly dull by three seasons. And could someone explain why the Crawleys suddenly believed that Sir Anthony Strallan was too old for middle daughter, Lady Edith Crawley. They certainly felt differently six years ago in Series One, as they considered him as a potential mate for both Lady Edith and Lady Mary. And I find it hard to believe that an arm damaged by the war would turn him into an unwanted son-in-law. I find that too ridiculous to believe. And when Lady Edith found love again, she discovered that the object of her desire – a magazine editor named Michael Gregson – was a married man. And he could not get a divorce, because his wife was mentally handicapped and living in an asylum. In other words, Fellowes had to borrow from Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Jane Eyre” to make this story interesting. Unfortunately, I did not find the circumstances of Gregson’s marriage interesting. Merely unoriginal.

I could go on about the numerous problems I encountered in Series Three. Believe me, I found more. Among them are the number of story lines that Fellowes introduced and dropped during this season. I have already discussed how he ended a potential estrangement between Lord and Lady Grantham before it could get into full swing. Other dropped story lines included:

*Mrs. Hughes’ cancer scare
*Mrs. Patmore’s relationship with a new shopkeeper
*A potential romance between Isobel Crawley and Dr. Clarkson
*Tom and Lady Sybil Branson in Ireland, which was never explored
*Tom Branson’s revolutionary beliefs nipped in the bud

I noticed that “DOWNTON ABBEY” recently received several Emmy nominations – including one for Best Drama. Best Drama? I was disgusted when I heard the news. My disgust did not stem from any dislike of the show. “DOWNTON ABBEY” may be flawed, but it is still entertaining. But I believe it is not good enough to be considered for a Best Drama Emmy nomination. Even worse, a far superior series like FX’s “THE AMERICANS” was overlooked for the same category. Series Three of “DOWNTON ABBEY” had some good moments – especially Episode Five, which featured the death of Lady Sybil Branson. And I found it slightly better than Series Two. But the series remains a ghost of its former self. It still failed to reach the same level of quality of Series One. And even that was not perfect.

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Ranking of “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” Movies

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With one more season of “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” left with David Suchet as the famous literary Belgian detective, I thought it would be nice to rank some of the series’ feature-length movies that aired between 1989 and 2010. I have divided this ranking into two lists – my top five favorite movies and my five least favorite movies: 

 

RANKING OF “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” MOVIES

Top Five Favorite Movies

1-Five Little Pigs

1. “Five Little Pigs” (2003) – In this beautifully poignant tale, Hercule Poirot investigates a fourteen year-old murder in which his client’s mother was erroneously convicted and hanged for.

2-After the Funeral

2. “After the Funeral” (2006) – When a relative of a deceased man questions the nature of his death at a family funeral, she is violently murdered the following day and the family’s solicitor requests Poirot’s help. Better than the novel, the movie has a surprising twist.

3-The ABC Murders

3. “The A.B.C. Murders” (1992) – In this first-rate adaptation of one of Christie’s most original tales, Poirot receives clues and taunting letters from a serial killer who appears to choose his random victims and crime scenes alphabetically.

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4. “Murder on the Links” (1996) – While vacationing in Deauville with his friend, Arthur Hastings, Poirot is approached by a businessman, who claims that someone from the past has been sending him threatening letters. One of my favorites.

5-Sad Cypress

5. “Sad Cypress” (2003) – Poirot is asked to investigate two murders for which a young woman has been convicted in the emotional and satisfying tale.

Top Five Least Favorite Movies

1-Taken at the Flood

1. “Taken at the Flood” (2006) – In this rather unpleasant tale, Poirot is recruited by an upper-class family to investigate the young widow of their late and very rich relative, who has left his money solely to her.

2-The Hollow

2. “The Hollow” (2004) – A favorite with many Christie fans, but not with me, this tale features Poirot’s investigation into the murder of a successful doctor at a country house weekend party.

3-Appointment With Death

3. “Appointment With Death” (2008) – In this sloppy adaptation of one of Christie’s novel, Poirot investigates the death of a wealthy American widow, during his vacation in the Middle East.

4-Hickory Dickory Dock

4. “Hickory Dickory Dock” (1995) – In a tale featuring an annoying nursery rhyme, Poirot’s secretary Miss Lemon persuades Poirot to investigate a series of apparently minor thefts in a university hostel where her sister works, but simple kleptomania soon turns to homicide.

5-One Two Buckle My Shoe

5. “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe” (1992) – Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp investigates the alleged suicide of the Belgian detective’s dentist. Despite the heavy political overtones, this movie is nearly sunk by a premature revelation of the killer.

“DOWNTON ABBEY” – Series Two (2011) Retrospective

 

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“DOWNTON ABBEY” – Series Two (2011) Retrospective

The debut of Julian Fellowes’ series about an aristocratic family during the last few years before the outbreak of World War I garnered a great deal acclaim and awards, earlier this year. The success of the series led the ITV and Fellowes to continue the saga of the Earl of Grantham, his family and servants in a new season.

Series Two of “DOWNTON ABBEY” covered the last two years of World War I and the first year of peace during the years 1916 to 1919. Episode One began with Matthew Crawley, the heir presumptive for the Earl of Grantham enduring the last days of the Somme Offensive in November 1916. The story immediately shifted toward the personal dramas that unfolded over eight to nine episodes.

Last season focused upon the entail issue that prevented Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham from bequeathing his title or any of his fortune to his three daughters – Lady Mary, Lady Edith and Lady Sybil Crawley and forced him to accept Matthew Crawley, a third cousin raised as a middle-class cousin as his heir. Season Two focused upon the Crawleys’ attempts to adjust to the changes caused by the war, their love lives and the impact of the war upon their servants.

One of the main subplots introduced in this season’s first episode turned out to be Matthew’s engagement to Lavinia Swire, the daughter of a London solicitor. Most of the family and servants like Mr. Carson oppose Matthew’s engagement to Lavinia, due to her status as a member of the middle-class and her position as an impediment to a reconciliation between Matthew and the family’s elder daughter, Lady Mary. The youngest Crawley daughter, Lady Sybil, becomes a wartime nurse and faces a growing attraction to the family’s Irish-born chauffeur, Tom Branson. Meanwhile, middle daughter Lady Edith learns how to drive and later, becomes a nurse’s aide. Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham embarks on a campaign to ensure Matthew and Lady Mary’s engagement. Meanwhile, the scandal from her Season One encounter with Turkish diplomat, Kamal Pamuk, threatens to rear its ugly head for Lady Mary. She seeks help from Sir Richard Carlisle, a suitor, to nip the scandal in the bud. But he exacts a price from her, for his help – an official engagement to marry. Cora, Countess of Grantham and Matthew’s mother, Isobel Crawley, transform Downton Abbey into a convalescent hospital for Army officers. The two become involved in a power struggle before Lady Grantham assumes full control. Only Lord Grantham spends the rest of the war with nothing to do and sinks into a depression over his inactivity.

Most of the servants continue their household duties at Downton Abbey. Just as valet John Bates announces his intentions to divorce his wife to lady love and head housemaid Anna Smith, his wife Vera make the first of a few visits. Her threat to expose Lady Mary’s Season One tryst with the dead Turkish diplomat, Mr. Kemal Pamuk, forces Bates to give up his position as Lord Grantham’s valet and return to her. After being needled for being out of uniform, footman William Mason caves in and joins the Army. His decision eventually has an impact on Daisy, the scullery maid for whom he harbors unrequited love. Both the cook Mrs. Patmore and housekeeper Mrs. Hughes, pressures Daisy into becoming William’s fiancé before he leaves for the war front in Episode Three. And when William returns to Downton Abbey, mortally wounded, Mrs. Patmore coerces Daisy into marrying him out of pity, leaving a bad taste in the scullery maid’s mouth. After the trick she had pulled that cause Lady Grantham to miscarry in Season One, lady’s maid Sarah O’Brien becomes increasingly devoted to her mistress. Yet, she continues to go out of her way to make life miserable for Mr. Bates, by communicating with his wife. Downton Abbey’s new housemaid, Ethel Parks, becomes involved with one of the patients at the Crawleys’ convalescent hospital, which results in a baby for her. She seeks help from Mrs. Hughes to contact the officer’s parents for financial assistance. Former footman Thomas Barrow started out the season as a medic in France. But the horrors of war drives him to deliberately expose his hand to gunfire in order to permanently leave the front. He eventually becomes a medic at the local hospital near the Crawley estate and later, as an aide at the Crawleys’ convalescent hospital.

I just learned that “DOWNTON ABBEY” recently entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the “most critically acclaimed English-language television show” for 2011, becoming the first co-produced U.S./British show to be recognised as such by the Guinness Book of Records. One, I did not know that “DOWNTON ABBEY” was co-produced in both Great Britain and the U.S. And two, as much as I enjoy the series, I am beginning to feel that a good deal of its acclaim might be undeserved.

One might assume that I dislike “DOWNTON ABBEY”. On the contrary, I like it very much. I became a big fan of the series when its first season aired. But I also noticed certain flaws in Julian Fellowes’ depiction of Downton Abbey’s inhabitants that continued to both flourish and increase in Season Two. There were aspects of Season Two that I admired. The cast, led by Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern continued to give first-rate performances. Michelle Dockery and Maggie Smith’s performances seemed to stand out with most fans and critics. I cannot say that I agree with them. I suspect that Fellowes’ detailed attention to Dockery’s character and Smith’s witty one-liners made them more popular than the other characters. The series’ early 20th century costumes remained exquisite as ever, thanks to Susannah Buxton and Rosalind Ebbutt’s designs. And aside from the few combat sequences, the series’ production values and designs continued to be top-notch.

The second season of “DOWNTON ABBEY” provided some truly memorable moments. The Spanish Flu sequence in Episode Eight impressed me, with the exception of how the epidemic claimed its only victim. People might find this surprising, but I have always enjoyed Laura Carmichael’s portrayal of middle daughter, Lady Edith. She was never a villainess to me even back in Season One. I understood her problems. However, I was happy to see that her character developed further when she finally overcame her resentment toward older sister, Lady Mary. I also enjoyed watching the experiences of former footman Thomas Barrow in the season’s first two episodes. The scenes featuring his combat experiences in France and his work with Dr. Clarkson and Lady Sybil Crawley at the village hospital really impressed me. One other character that made Season Two bearable for me, turned out to be Mrs. Hughes, the family’s housekeeper. Her down-to-earth nature, along with her efforts to help housemaid Ethel Parks and her comments about Lady Mary pretty much anchored the season for me.

Unfortunately . . . when it came to Season Two, the bad outweighed the good. One of my complaints about Season One was that the only characters that seemed to display any real complexity were members of the aristocratic Crawley family. Aside from a few scenes, most of the servants continued to be portrayed in a one-dimensional manner. In Julian Fellowes’ world (without Robert Altman and Bob Balaban looking over his shoulders), the only good working-class character was one loyal to his or her employer.

From the moment she was introduced arrogantly proclaiming her desire for a life outside of service, Ethel Parks was doomed. Unlike Gwen Dawson from Season One, she did not seek or acquire the help from a Crawley to rise in the world. She slept with an officer and paid the price with a baby and unemployment. Fellowes seemed to have ceased portraying former footman Thomas as a one-note villain and portray him in a more sympathetic light in the season’s first two episodes. By the time Thomas returned to Downton Abbey as a medic at the estate’s convalescent hospital, the former footman returned to his usual sneers and sharp comments. Only he did so, standing in the doorway or sitting at the servants’ table, sneering. And when he tried to earn enough money through the black market to start his own business at the end of the war, he discovered that he had been swindled. Thomas was forced to seek work at Downton Abbey again. I cannot help but wonder if he would have been more successful if he had sought the “noble” help of Lord Grantham or some other member of the Crawley family.

The subplot involving Daisy, William and Mrs. Patmore disgusted me. Period. I found it bad enough that Mrs. Patmore bullied and cajoled Daisy into a deception by becoming William’s fiancée and later, his wife. In the “Christmas Special”, Fellowes decided to condone Mrs. Patmore’s bullying by allowing Daisy to form some kind of relationship with William’s dad. It was sickening to watch and I cannot believe that Fellowes would actually finish a subplot on this note, because many of the fans wanted Daisy to be in love with William. Mr. Carson remained ridiculously loyal to the Crawleys and more importantly, to Lady Mary. In fact, his loyalty led him to consistently make insulting and snobbish remarks about Matthew’s middle-class fiancée, Lavinia. Anyone could have perceived this as part of Fellowes’ efforts to portray Mr. Carson in an ambiguous light. Unfortunately, Fellowes’ one-dimensional portrayal of Lavinia as a dull “goody-goody” have led many fans to embrace Mr. Carson’s disapproval of her. On the other hand, Fellowes did an excellent job in assassinating the family’s radical chauffeur, Tom Branson. His friendship with Lady Sybil had created a shipper’s following by the end of Season One. But once Fellowes ridiculed Branson’s radicial beliefs in two scenes – his plan to embarrass a visiting British Army general, which backfired; and his casual dismissal of the Romanovs – he became one of the most disliked characters of Season Two. And many fans expressed disapproval when Lady Sybil began to hint some kind of attraction toward him, claiming that their relationship lacked any chemistry. The hypocrisy toward Branson, generated by Fellowes’ conservatism, was astounding to witness. Even Sarah O’Brien did not fare well. Although she became more loyal toward the Countess of Grantham following the latter’s miscarriage in Season One, O’Brien continued her hostility toward John Bates even when Thomas lost interest in the valet. And the reason behind O’Brien’s hostility remained consistently vague, until she dropped it altogether in the wake of Bates’ arrest.

Speaking of Bates, his romance with Anna Smith turned out to be one of the biggest jokes of the season. I never thought it would come to this. Honestly. Aside from the appearance of the one-note villainous Vera Bates, nothing happened. I am trying to remember what was so interesting about their relationship. Instead, I find myself recalling how much I found Bates’ martyr complex so tedious. Why on earth would he give up a job that he liked to prevent the likes of Lady Mary from facing a scandal about her one night tryst with the late Kemal Pamuk? I mean . . . really! If Vera Bates knew about the scandal, half of Britain’s upper-class families and their servants must have heard the rumor. Meanwhile, Anna kept making a chump of herself, while buying Bates’ promises of how he was going to get rid of Vera. I wish Fellowes never brought her on the scene in the first place. I enjoyed Maria Doyle Kennedy’s performance in “THE TUDORS”, but ended up with one of the dullest and badly written villains in television history.

For once, the Crawley family did not fare any better. Lady Mary remained the only upper-class character with any real complexity and a strong subplot. I suspect that the character became a personal favorite of Fellowes, and actress Michelle Dockery benefited a great deal from his writing. However, not even she or Dan Stevens could overcome the maudlin romance that their characters had been saddled with in Season Two. The Matthew/Mary romance had started as an interesting one in Season One, and transformed into a cliché-riddled love story fit for a bad romance novel. The two worse moments in their relationship turned out to be that Godawful moment when Matthew (who had been reported missing) suddenly appeared at Downton Abbey during a concert, joining Mary in “If You Were the Only Girl” and when Mary experienced a “feeling” the moment Matthew suffered a major wound in Episode Five. I had to struggle to keep from throwing up during both scenes. And although Lady Edith managed to overcome her resentment of Lady Mary, the two subplots that Fellowes saddled on her character went no where. The “Patrick Crawley” subplot, in which a Canadian officer claimed to be one of her father’s former heirs . . . simply went no where. Her “affair” with a local farmer, which consisted of a kiss, ended just as soon as the farmer’s wife had her dismissed. I have already revealed what happened with Lady Sybil’s relationship with Tom Branson.

Cora, Countess of Grantham was involved in two major subplots. One involved her power struggle with Isobel Crawley (Matthew’s mother) over who would manage the convalescent hospital and Downton Abbey. Poor Isobel was portrayed as a tyrannical do-gooder from the middle-class. And many fans cheered when Cora managed oust her from Downton Abbey. I did not. All Cora had to do was remind Isobel that she was mistress of Downton Abbey, while the latter continue to run the hospital. Instead, she resorted to a passive-aggressive means to get rid of Isobel and I ended up feeling disgusted. I was also disgusted by the machinations that Cora and the Dowager Countess used to detract Isobel from keeping the convalescent hospital opened after the war ended. I found it ridiculous. They seemed incapable of simply telling Isobel that Downton Abbey would return to being a private home. Yet, once again, fans cheered over the aristocratic women’s triumph. Sickening. Robert, the Earl of Grantham came close to being written as a complex character. He spent most of the season feeling useless, because he was unable to obtain a command and go to the front. Eventually, Robert’s feelings of uselessness and abandonment led him to become romantically involved with a housemaid named Jane Moorsum. This subplot would have worked, if it had been introduced . . . before Episode Five. Aside from plotting Lady Mary and Matthew’s reconciliation, Violet, the Dowager Countess spent most of the season spouting one-liners. I hate to say this, but I eventually found this tiresome. Poor Maggie Smith had been reduced to being the show’s comic relief.

Thanks to Vera Bates, Lady Mary had to seek the help of her suitor, press baron Sir Richard Carlisle, to help her get rid of the blackmailing woman. In return, Lady Mary promised to become officially engaged to Sir Richard. Poor Iain Glen. Vera Bates was not the only badly written villain to appear in Season Two. Sir Richard was another. Despite his title, Sir Richard was a self-made man, who certainly did not originate from the upper-classes. Both Lady Mary and Lord Grantham did not hesitate to let him know. More importantly, Fellowes did not hesitate to portray him as some mustache-twirling villain without any complexities, whatsoever. Which is not surprising, considering he was not an aristocrat. Poor Iain Glen. His previous roles were a hell of a lot more ambiguous and interesting than Sir Richard “Snidely Whiplash” Carlisle.

I might as well face it. Season Two of “DOWNTON ABBEY” disappointed me. Sure, there were a few aspects about it that I found admirable. But Fellowes’ writing simply undermined the show’s quality. I had hoped that his portrayal of the Crawleys’ servants would improve from Season One. It did not. Worse, the season was marred by incomplete subplots that went no where and badly written romances that left me shaking my head in disgust. I hope . . . I pray that Season Three will prove to be a lot better.

“DOWNTON ABBEY” – Series One (2010) Retrospective

“DOWNTON ABBEY” – Series One (2010) Retrospective

The announcement of ITV’s new series, “DOWNTON ABBEY”, had attracted my interest the moment I had learned it would air on American television, during the winter of 2011. I happened to be a fan of Robert Altman’s 2001 movie,“GOSFORD PARK”. And when I learned that the movie’s Oscar winning writer, Julian Fellowes, was one of the series’ creators, my interest soon transformed into anticipation. 

Focused upon a vast estate during the last years of the Edwardian England, “DOWNTON ABBEY” was able to allow viewers to glimpse into the lives of the estate’s owner (or caretaker), Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham; his immediate family; and the family’s servants through seven episodes. This first series began with news of the R.M.S. Titanic disaster in April 1912, which sparked a crisis for the Crawley family. The series ended with the commencement of World War I, over two years later. During those two years, the family endured the loss of two heirs presumptive, a new heir from the wrong social class, a personal scandal for Lord Grantham’s oldest daughter, a series of minor problems and a mystery surrounding his new valet, a pregnancy, a hostile valet, and the youngest daughter’s embroilment in the women’s suffragette movement.

“DOWNTON ABBEY” did not strike me as an original series. After all, I have seen both another television series and a movie with a similar premise – namely the 1971-1975 BBC series, “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” and “GOSFORD PARK”(which had a murder mystery attached to it). “DOWNTON ABBEY” had a good number of plotlines. Two of them are continuing plotlines – Lady Sybil Crawley’s politics and friendship with the family’s Irish-born chauffeur, Bronson; and the fallout from Lady Grantham’s accident, caused by her personal maid, Sarah O’Brien. But the meat of the series centered around two major storylines – the Earl of Grantham’s new heir and his impact upon the family’s fortunes; and the mystery surrounding the new valet, John Bates.

Lord Grantham and John Bates first met, while serving together during the Second Anglo-Boer War, in which the latter was crippled for life. Years later, Lord Grantham helped Bates by hiring him as a new valet. The latter’s arrival (which occurred on the same day that the household learned about the Titanic sinking) sparked a feud between him and the venal first footman, Thomas, who had coveted Bates’ new position. Due to her friendship with Thomas, O’Brien became drawn into the feud. And the two spent the next two years attempting to get Bates fired. Bates acquired his own champion in the form of head housemaid, Anna Smith. By the seventh episode, Bates and Anna were in love. But Bates refused to pursue a romance, due to some mystery regarding his marriage to a questionable woman.

The other major story proved to be a lot more complicated. Lord Grantham’s marriage to an American heiress brought him money for the family estate, unexpected marital bliss, three daughters and no male heirs. Because he had no sons, Lord Grantham’s first cousin became his heir presumptive. And his oldest daughter, Lady Mary, became engaged to his cousin’s son. However, the Titanic disaster took the lives of the two heirs and a new heir was found – a Manchester attorney named Matthew Crawley, who happened to be Lord Grantham’s third cousin. Unfortunately, not only had Matthew been raised in a middle-class environment, he would end up inheriting the Grantham title, Downton Abbey and the money that came with Cora, Lady Grantham’s dowry – money that his three female cousins will never be able to touch following their father’s death. Although most of the Crawley women initially found the idea of Matthew as the next Earl of Grantham abhorrent, both Lady Grantham and the Dowager Lady Grantham decided to consider the idea of Lady Mary marrying him. They saw this as the only means for a member of the immediate family to have access to Lady Grantham’s dowry. This storyline played into Lady Mary’s efforts to find a husband as a way to avoid marriage to Matthew. Unfortunately, her reputation was compromised by a Turkish diplomat, who decided to visit her room during a weekend hunting party. The storyline also played a major role in the on-going rivalry between the much-favored Lady Mary and the ignored and less beautiful middle sister, Lady Edith. This rivalry ended in disaster for both by the seventh season.

I believe that “DOWNTON ABBEY” certainly lived up to its hype. The series turned out to be a sharp and well-written television drama that also proved to be a breath of fresh air. And that is an interesting conclusion for me to arrive, considering that “DOWNTON ABBEY” is not what I would call an original premise. I suspect that Julian Fellowes might have a talent for drama with a multi-class premise within a single setting, as his work with both the series and“GOSFORD PARK” seemed to prove.

Fellowes’ handling of the servants’ storylines and characterization proved to be adept and well-written, but not as complex of his handling of the immediate Crawley family. Mind you, I rather enjoyed the storyline surrounding the John Bates character and the mysteries of his past. Because of his handicap, Bates drew the ire of the other servants, who resented that they had to cover his mistakes caused by his disability. But this resentment transformed into a feud between Bates and the villainous Thomas that lasted throughout the entire first series. The problem I do have with Fellowes’ characterizations of the Crawley servants was that they seemed to lack a good deal of the same complexity that made the Crawley family very interesting. Most of the servants struck me as a bit too likeable – almost to the point of being noble. This was especially true with four of the characters – John Bates, the butler Charles Carson, the housekeeper Mrs. Elsie Hughes and head housemaid Anna Smith. The worse most of these characters seemed to suffer from – especially Bates and Mr. Carson – was pride. The servants did show signs of some moral complexity, when they expressed both surprise and resentment at housemaid Gwen Dawson’s aspirations to leave service and become a secretary.

On the other side of the spectrum, there was Thomas and O’Brien, who turned out to be villains of the story. Well . . . at least Thomas did. I must admit that O’Brien’s hostility seemed to be stemmed from her resentment toward her position as a servant. And she proved to be horrified and remorseful that she had caused Lady Grantham to miscarry an unborn child. Thomas, on the other hand, proved to be a thorough villain. Not only did he make several attempts to remove Bates as Lord Grantham’s valet, he also expressed callous disregard toward the death of second footman William Mason’s mother and Lady Crawley’s miscarriage. By the seventh season, he was fast becoming a one-note villain. And I found it disturbing that the series’ one true villain was not only a servant, but also a homosexual. Thomas’ sexual persuasion allowed Fellowes to provide him with one moment of sympathy, when he was rejected by a visiting aristocrat (Charlie Cox) that proved to be his former lover. It is possible that I am putting too much into this, but having the series’ one unrepentant villain also be a homosexual strikes me as slightly homophobic.

Fellowes handled the characterizations of the Crawley family with a complexity that I found a lot more satisfying. The series’ two most complex characters turned out to be the older Crawley sisters – Lady Mary and Lady Edith. Both proved to be decent women that had to deal with their own personal angst. Lady Mary had to deal with her damaged reputation and resentment toward her father’s interest in her cousin Matthew Crawley. And Lady Edith had to endure her parents and grandmother’s lack of attention. However, Lady Mary and Lady Edith’s sibling rivalry also proved how ugly they could become. Lady Mary seemed very unsympathetic toward her younger sister’s emotional plight. And Lady Edith’s resentment led her to expose her sister’s late night encounter with the Turkish attaché, Mr. Kemal Pamuk. After discovering Lady Edith’s treachery, Lady Mary sabotaged the younger sister’s developing romance with the widowed Sir Anthony Strallen.

The rest of the Crawley family seemed less complex than the two older sisters. But they had their share of flaws. Superficially, the Earl and Countess of Grantham seemed unusually tolerant toward their servants, for members of the aristocracy. Yet, Lord Grantham did reveal his willingness to make his chauffeur, Tom Branson, a scapegoat for his youngest daughter’s political interests. And both he and Lady Grantham’s cool dismissal of the plainer Lady Edith’s chances of matrimony struck me as rather callous. The Dowager Lady Grantham initially came off as a snobbish, blunt and a bit too reactionary. And yet, she also had a sharp wit that many found entertaining. She even managed to warm up to her son’s middle-class heir and the latter’s mother. Speaking of Matthew Crawley, he seemed like a sympathetic and strong-willed character. And yet, I got the distinct impression that he also had a chip on his shoulder and a tendency to make assumptions about others – especially Lady Mary, with whom he had fallen in love. And his mother, Mrs. Violet Crawley was a decent, forthright woman and former nurse, who also came off as what the British would describe as aswot. In other words, she sometimes came off as a know-it-all prig. The only member of the family, whose complexity seemed to be at the same level as most of the servants, was the youngest daughter, Lady Sybil. Fellowes nearly portrayed her as a lively, upbeat, compassionate and forward-thinking young woman, with a deep interest in politics. In other words, she came off as a bit too ideal in my taste.

For me, the best aspect of Series One was the storyline featuring the effects of no male heirs and the estate’s entails had upon the Crawley family. Fellowes must have put a great deal of effort into creating it. Looking back, I am surprised that so many plots had such a strong connection to this storyline regarding the new family heir and the entail. Who would have thought that the sinking of the Titanic would prove to have such a strong impact upon the Crawley family? Especially upon the lives of the two elder sisters – Lady Mary and Lady Edith – and their cousin Matthew? To avoid a future in matrimony with Matthew, Lady Mary set out to find a rich and socially acceptable husband. Unfortunately, a late night encounter with a Turkish diplomat during a family-hosted hunting party left a whiff of scandal in Lady Mary’s wake. And due to Lady Edith’s resentment toward her older sister, she quietly revealed the true details behind the death of Mr. Kemal Pamuk to the Turkish Ambassador, the whiff developed into a full grown scandal that tainted Lady Mary’s reputation.

As much as I admired the series’ writing, there were some aspects of it that left me scratching my head. I have already complained about Fellowes’ occasionally one-dimensional characterization of most of the servants and Lady Sybil. I also have a complaint about another character. Although his characterization of the Dowager Countess was basically ambiguous, the character strongly reminded me of another that Maggie Smith had portrayed in “GOSFORD PARK” – namely Constance, Countess of Trentham. Only her character in the 2001 movie seemed a lot more subtle. And there is also one aspect of the Lady Mary-Mr. Pamuk storyline that troubled me. All those who knew about Mr. Pamuk’s presence in Lady Mary’s bedroom never bothered to question how he discovered her bedroom in the first place. Well, both Anna and Lady Grantham had jumped to the conclusion that Lady Marry had invited the attaché into her bedroom. But not even Lady Mary bothered to question his presence in her room. She never expressed one question. If she had, she and her mother would have eventually discovered that the only person who had the best chance of revealing her bedroom’s location to Mr. Pamuk was Thomas. The footman had served as the attaché’s temporary valet during the hunting party.

“DOWNTON ABBEY” proved to be a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean . . . and deservedly. Despite some of its flaws, it was a well made and well written television series. This first series allowed viewers a glimpse into the world of the British aristocracy and its servants during the last two years before the outbreak of World War I. Now that war was declared in the seventh episode, I look forward to seeing how the series will handle the Crawleys and their servants’ experiences during the war. But if Series Two will cover World War I, does this mean that “DOWNTON ABBEY” will continue on into the period between the world wars – the same period now being covered by the recently updated“UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”? I guess we will have to wait and see.

“APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” (2008) Review

 

 

 

“APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” (2008) Review

Looking back on the number of Agatha Christie movie adaptations I have seen, I find it surprising that only a handful of Christie titles have been adapted for the movies or television more than once. One of those titles happened to be the author’s 1938 novel called ”Appointment With Death”

The most well known adaptation before the 2008 one had been produced and directed by Michael Winner some twenty years earlier. Released in 1988, the movie starred Peter Ustinov in his last appearance as the Belgian-born sleuth, Hercule Poirot; and is not considered among the best of Christie adaptations before the premiere of ”Agatha Christie’s POIROT” around 1989. The production values of the 1988 version of ”APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” almost had a cheap, B-movie quality about it. Nevertheless, I feel that it is a masterpiece in compare to this recent version that starred David Suchet as Poirot.

”APOINTMENT WITH DEATH” told the story of Hercule Poirot’s investigation into the murder of a wealthy, middle-aged American woman named Lady Boynton (Mrs. Boynton in the novel). But screenwriter Guy Andrews made so many changes from Christie’s original tale that it would seem pointless for me to recap the plot. One, the victim is not a widow. Instead, she is in the middle of a second marriage to a British peer and archeologist named Lord Boynton. Only Lennox Boynton is her stepson by marriage . . . and his name has become Leonard. The others – Carol, Raymond and Ginerva (Jinny) – had been adopted before her marriage to Lord Boynton. And yes, Jinny is no longer her child by blood. Lady Boynton never spent time as a warden for a women’s prison. Instead, she was an astute businesswoman. The character of Nadine, Lennox’s wife, did not appear in this adaptation. Jefferson Hope was transformed from the Boynton family’s attorney, into an American traveler with business ties to Lady Boynton. Dr. Gerard’s nationality and profession had been changed from French psychologist to British medical doctor. The American-born Member of Parliament, Lady Westholme, became British-born world traveler Dame Celia Westholme. And former nursery governess Miss Amabel Pierce, became known as “Nanny”; Lady Boynton’s nervous and very reluctant henchwoman in the abuse of the murder victim’s many adopted children. Andrews also added a new character – a Polish-born nun, who had befriended Jinny, named Sister Agnieszka. However, Dr. Sarah King remained intact – in both characterization and profession. The story’s setting is changed from Petra to Syria. The novel featured a single killer. This movie featured two killers . . . and a different motive. These changes allowed Andrews to give the murderers a fate straight from the finale of 1937’s ”Death on the Nile”.

I have to make one thing clear regarding the changes made by Guy Andrews. I have nothing against a writer making changes from a literary source to accommodate a screen adaptation. There are some things that do not translate well to the screen. But I feel that most of the changes made by Andrews did NOT serve the movie’s plot very well. In fact, I would say that the opposite happened. Despite its B-movie atmosphere; the 1988 movie seemed like an elegant affair in comparison to this 2008 version. Mind you, the latter had some virtues. David Suchet gave a subtle performance as Hercule Poirot. Peter Greenhalgh’s photography struck me as beautiful and rich in colors. Even Sheena Napier’s costume designs managed to capture the mid-to-late 1930s quite well. Elizabeth McGovern’s portrayal of a British or Irish female seemed surprisingly competent, despite her being American-born. Both Tim Curry (as Lord Boynton) and John Hannah (as Dr. Gerard) gave entertaining performances. And I also felt impressed by Christina Cole (Dr. Sarah King) and Mark Gatiss (Leonard) performances as well. So, why do I have such a low opinion of this movie?

My main beef with ”APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” was the changes made to the story. I simply found them unnecessary. The change in the story’s setting from Petra to Syria, created a small confusion. In the 1930s, part of Syria was under British control and the other half was under French control. Yet, the movie featured a very British Colonel Carbury (portrayed by Paul Freeman), who had French troops under his command. Confusing. And was it really necessary to include characters like Lord Boynton and Sister Agnieszka, who did not exist in the novel? No. Lord Boynton was nothing more than a red herring created to distract viewers of the teleplay. And Sister Agnieszka was used to include a subplot that was never in the novel and had nothing to do with the main narrative. Was it necessary to change the number of murderers from one to two? Again . . . no. By changing the number of murderers, Andrews changed the motive behind the victim’s murder from preserving a secret to an act of revenge. Worse, by changing the number of murderers and motive, Andrews complicated the plot to such a ridiculous level that by the end of the story, I found myself shaking my head in disbelief. Even more ridiculous was the convoluted method used by the killers to bump off Lady Boynton. Was it necessary to include a subplot about the sex slave trade, which had nothing to do with Lady Boynton’s murder? I would say no. Especially since the subplot was never included in Christie’s novel.

In the novel, Mrs. Boynton inflicted a great deal of psychological abuse upon her step-children and her daughter, Jinny. This movie had Lady Boynton bullying a hired nanny – Nanny Taylor – into inflicting physical abuse upon the many children she had adopted over the years – including Raymond, Carol . . . and Jinny. Was the change necessary? I certainly do not believe it was. Both the novel and the 1988 film made it painfully obvious how harmful Mrs. Boynton’s psychological abuse was upon her stepchildren. Apparently, Andrews, director Ashley Pierce and the producers thought it was not dramatic enough and decided to be more drastic by including physical abuse. To emphasize the horror of Lady Boynton’s domestic situation, they allowed Nanny Taylor to fall into a catatonic state following her employer’s death out of guilt. I found these changes unnecessary. I found the idea of Nanny Taylor remaining with the family after the children became adults irrelevant. And if I must be brutally honest, I was not that impressed by Angela Pleasance’s slightly hammy performance as the tormented nanny.

In a review of “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, the 2010 version of Christie’s 1934 novel, I had complained about the religious themes that permeated that movie. Apparently, ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” was not the first movie in the series to emphasize religion. The same happened two years earlier in ”APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH”. As I had stated earlier, one of the new characters turned out to be a Polish-born Catholic nun. I had to endure a sanctimonious conversation between her and Ginerva. Lord Boynton’s archeological quest turned out to be a search for John the Baptist’s head. I had never heard of anything so ridiculous. How was anyone supposed to figure out whether the head of John the Baptist or some citizen of the region had been found? And to make matters worse, once Lord Boynton thought he had found the object of his quest, he had Sister Agnieszka lead the rest of the party into a prayer over said skull. The scene struck me as too ludicrous to believe. The over-the-top choral music that permeated Stephen McKeon’s score did not help matters.

When it comes to adapting a novel or play for the screen, I have no problems with screenwriters making changes to the story or any of the characters . . . if those changes manage to serve the film. After all, some aspects of a novel or play do not translate well into film. But the changes I found in ”APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” struck me as unnecessary. They not only failed to serve the movie’s plot, I found them convoluted and over-the-top. The addition of a religious theme simply made matters worse. The movie had a few virtues – including a solid performance from David Suchet. But not even he could save the amount of damage inflicted upon this movie.