One of the sweeter productions from the Brits, I cannot help but think this little gem never did reach its full potential.
The Oldknow family name is facing ruin. This is all thanks to the beauty, Maria (Carice van Houten) who snagged the Captain’s attention and his allowing her far too much. Not a proper English woman, Maria’s heritage is one without fortune and as a result some twenty years and two children later, she is still fighting to be accepted as the wife of Captain Oldknow (Hugh Bonneville) and all that comes with the name. Gone a great deal of the time, the Captain is often unaware of what goes on in his household. Unable to prevent his wife’s uncontrollable gambling habits, he is fiercely protective of his young daughter (Eliza Hope Bennett) who was born blind but is a child not without determination. Then there is his sulking son, Sefton (Douglas Booth). The boy is a disappointment to his father and feeds off the misguidance of the family’s conniving butler Caxton (Dominic West). Little do any of them know just the influence and distress he is yet to create.
Such a tale is unraveled through the eyes of young Tolly (Alex Etel) some years later. A descendent of the Captain’s family, Tolly’s England is embroiled in WWII and he has just got word that his father is missing in action. Needing to find work, his mother sends Tolly to her husband’s old family estate and his grandmother, Mrs. Oldknow (Maggie Smith). Tolly knows little of his grandmother or her world since she was unhappy with her son’s choice of a bride but he remembers his father speaking fondly of the home he grew up in and Tolly is desperate to hang on to his beloved father. Strange things begin happening and Tolly finds himself back in time uncovering the scandals of his family’s past.
This was one of those films that did not release in a timely manner in the states and subsequently passed in and out of importance. I’d read reviews on it and even really wanted to see it at the time and then never tried to obtain a copy once it was finally made available. I happened to spot it at the rental store this past week and seized the opportunity to finally get a look at it. The end result is simple in that I do not regret having seen it but I also was dissatisfied in so many of its quaint vignette plot lines that it makes it hard to really appreciate every nuance or point the story itself is trying to make.
Penned by the brilliant and by now well known screenplay writer Julian Fellowes, much of this movie is true to his unique style – it is quite easy to spot his signature approach. The script isn’t bad (Maggie Smith in particular gets in some good zingers) but it wasn’t properly put to the screen… in my humble opinion. The mystery keeps us intrigued as does the back-and-forth between eras but I am not sure that alone was enough. Fellowes also directed and produced this one and I think it was, overall lacking in the end. There wasn’t that spark it needed to be a truly “great” or unforgettable movie that we’d want to watch over and over again – somehow the pacing felt terribly lacking and in that, the film seemed to drag more than it should have given the potential its plot had. Nearly all is forgiven by the appearance of the phenomenal cast! Before Downton Abbey, Hugh and Maggie starred in this little movie in which they have no scenes together while other cast members include Pauline Collins and Timothy Spall, while it was fun to see Booth in something prior to his role as Pip in the latest Great Expectations – watching a British production is fun just to make a game of picking out which faces you’ve seen in prior mini-series. Costuming is also pretty but more so in the past than present given it took place in a more carefree era that was accustomed to pretty things.
There is a message here that even today, many will relate to. I think at its heart, the story tries to teach us that although it is painful to say good-bye that day does have to come – for all of us, and though heartbreaking, there is healing. Tolly’s connection to the past teaches him something about the present and that is a priceless lesson for him. It is a lovely little production to look at. The sprawling old family mansion that is at the center of the story in its current state gives the illusion of a mystery and the past paints a pretty picture of what it once was; warm tones and colorful blossoms. I liked the contrast in seasons which was likely added to show the differential in time periods. Not an ending we may expect of the script, flaws and all, it leaves us wishing for an epilogue but then, it wouldn’t have the flair of the Julian Fellowes we have come to know.
(Content concerns: Rated PG there are minor thematic elements such as ghostly figures present in the house and Tolly being able to talk with them. Some immodest clothing is present with period costumes. A fire burns down part of a house and nearly takes the lives of two children.)