Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1930s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1930s: 

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1930s

1. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984) – In this exciting second installment of the Indiana Jones franchise, the intrepid archaeologist is asked by desperate villagers in Northern India to find a mystical stolen stone and rescue their children from a Thuggee cult practicing child slavery. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie starred Harrison Ford as Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones.

2. “The Sting” (1973) – Paul Newman and Robert Redford starred in this excellent Oscar winning movie about a young drifter who teams up with a master of the big con to get revenge against the gangster who had his partner murdered. George Roy Hill directed.

3. “Death on the Nile” (1978) – Peter Ustinov made his first appearance as Hercule Poirot in this superb adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel about the murder of an Anglo-American heiress during a cruise on the Nile. John Guillermin directed.

4. “Chinatown” (1974) – Roman Polanski directed this outstanding Oscar nominated film about a Los Angeles private detective hired to expose an adulterer, who finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, corruption and murder. Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway starred.

5. “Gosford Park” (2001) – Robert Altman directed this Oscar nominated film about a murder that occurs at shooting party in 1932 England. The all-star cast includes Helen Mirren, Kelly MacDonald, Clive Owen and Maggie Smith.

6. “Evil Under the Sun” (1982) – Once again, Peter Ustinov portrayed Hercule Poirot in this entertaining adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel about the murder of a stage actress at an exclusive island resort. Guy Hamilton directed.

7. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) – Ethan and Joel Coen directed this very entertaining tale about three escaped convicts who search for a hidden treasure, while evading the law in Depression era Mississippi. George Clooney, John Tuturro and Tim Blake Nelson starred.

8. “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) – Albert Finney starred as Hercule Poirot in this stylish adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel about the Belgian detective’s investigation into the death of a mysterious American aboard the famed Orient Express. Sidney Lumet directed.

9. “Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) – Harrison Ford made his first appearance as Dr. “Indiana” Jones in this classic movie, as he races against time to find the iconic Ark of the Covenant that contains the Ten Commandments before the Nazis do in 1936 Egypt. Steven Spielberg directed.

“Seabiscuit” (2003) – Gary Ross directed this excellent adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s 2001 book about the famed race horse from the late 1930s. Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper and Elizabeth Banks starred.

Honorable Mention: “Road to Perdition” (2002) – Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin and Paul Newman starred in this first-rate adaptation of Max Collins’ 1998 graphic comic about a Depression era hitman who is forced to hit the road with his older son after the latter witnesses a murder. Sam Mendes directed.

The Celebration of Mediocrity and Unoriginality in “STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS”

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“THE CELEBRATION OF MEDIOCRITY AND UNORIGINALITY IN “STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS”

Look … I liked the new “STAR WARS” movie, “THE FORCE AWAKENS”.  I honestly do.  Heck, I feel it is better than J.J. Abrams’ two “STAR TREK” films.  But I am astounded that this film has garnered so much acclaim.  It has won the AFI Award for Best Picture.  It has been nominated by the Critics Choice Award for Best Picture.

“THE FORCE AWAKENS”???  Really?  It did not take long for certain fans to point out that the movie’s plot bore a strong resemblance to the first “STAR WARS” movie, “A NEW HOPE”.  In fact, I am beginning to suspect that J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan had more or less plagiarized the 1977 film, along with aspects from other movies in the franchise.  Worse, it has some plot holes that Abrams has managed to ineffectively explain to the media.  In other words, his explanations seemed like shit in the wind and the plot holes remained obvious.

Then I found myself thinking about “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.”, Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of the 1964-1968 television series.  I will not deny that the movie had some flaws.  Just about every movie I have seen throughout my life had some flaws.  But instead of attempting a carbon copy of the television series, Ritchie put his own, original spin of the show for his movie.  And personally, I had left the movie theater feeling impressed.  And entertained.  It is not that Ritchie had created a perfect movie.  But he did managed to create an original one, based upon an old source.  Now that was impressive.

But instead of having his movie appreciated, a good deal of the public stayed away in droves.  Warner Brothers barely publicized the film.  Worse, the studio released in August, the summer movie season’s graveyard.  And for those who did see the movie, the complained that it was not like the television show.  Ritchie had made changes for his film.  In other words, Ritchie was criticized for being original with a movie based upon an old television series.

This is incredibly pathetic.  One director is criticized giving an original spin to his movie adaptation.  Another director is hailed as the savior of a movie franchise for committing outright plagiarism.  This is what Western culture has devolved into, ladies and gentlemen.  We now live in a world in which the only movies that are box office hits are those that form part of a franchise.  We live in a society in which glossy and mediocre shows like “DOWNTON ABBEY” are celebrated.  We live in a world in which a crowd pleasing, yet standard movie biopic like “THE KING’S SPEECH”can receive more acclaim than an original film like “INCEPTION”.

In regard to culture or even pop culture, this society is rushing toward conformity, familiarity and mediocrity.  God help us.

“JANE EYRE” (1996) Review

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“JANE EYRE” (1996) Review

According to the Wikipedia website, there have been sixteen film adaptations of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Jane Eyre”. And there have been ten television adaptations of the novel. That is a hell of a lot of adaptations for one novel. A lot. And judging by the numbers, I have no immediate plan to see every movie or television adaptation. But I have seen at least five or six adaptations. And one of them is Franco Zeffirelli’s 1996 movie adaptation. 

Adapted by Zeffirelli and Hugh Whitemore, “JANE EYRE” told the story of a 19th century English orphan named Jane Eyre, who is rejected by her aunt and sent to a strict girls school. After eight years as a student and two years as an instructor, Jane is hired as governess to the French ward of Edward Rochester, the brooding owner of an estate in Yorkshire called Thornfield Hall. Although Jane possesses a mild, unprepossing manner, she also possesses strong internal passions and strength in character that her employer finds attractive. Eventually, Jane and her Mr. Rochester fall in love. But a deep secret that exists at Thornfield Hall threatens their future relationship and forces Jane to mature in a way she did not expect.

I could have delved more into the movie’s plot, but why bother? The story of Jane Eyre is so familiar and has been recounted so many times that I believe it would be best to describe how I feel about this adaptation. And how do I feel about it? Honestly, it is not one of my favorite adaptations. Mind you, it is not terrible. In fact, I find it pretty solid. The movie’s production values seemed to be first rate. I was impressed by Roger Hall’s production designs, which did a very good job of re-creating Northern England of the 1830s and 1840s. Jenny Beavan, whom I am beginning to believe is one of the best costume designers on both sides of the Atlantic, did an excellent job in re-creating the fashions for both decades. And I also liked how David Watkin’s photography captured the beauty of Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, which served as the Rochester estate, Thornfield Hall.

I would probably rate Zeffirelli and Whitemore’s adaptation of Brontë’s novel as slightly below above average, but not quite average. I feel they did a first-rate job of re-creating at least three quarters of Brontë’s tale. However, their adaptation fell apart, following Jane’s departure from Thornfield Hall. They allowed Bertha Rochester’s death and the burning of Thornfield to occur not long after Jane’s departure. At first, I found that odd. But now, I realize that Zeffirelli and Whitemore wanted to rush the story as fast as they possibly could. Matters did not improve when Jane met St. John and Mary Rivers. Jane’s inheritance of her uncle’s fortune and St. John’s loveless marriage proposal happened so fast that my head nearly spinned when she finally returned to Thornfield. The movie’s weakest writing proved to be in the last twenty to thirty minutes.

The biggest criticism that “JANE EYRE” received from critics proved to be Zeffirelli’s casting of William Hurt as Edward Rochester. Mind you, I found Hurt’s English accent a little shaky. But I really enjoyed the cynical and world weary air he projected into the character . . . especially in scenes featuring Rochester’s meeting with his brother-in-law, Richard Mason. And he also managed to achieve some kind of screen chemistry with leading lady Charlotte Gainsbourg. I find this quite miraculous, considering my belief that Gainsbourg’s portrayal of Jane Eyre proved to be the movie’s weakest link. I realize that this is not a popular view. But aside from one scene, I found Gainsbourg’s performance to be completelyBORING. All she had to do was open her mouth and her flat tones nearly put me to sleep. The only time she really managed to effectively convey Jane’s deep emotions was in the famous scene in which the character revealed her love for Rochester. Only in this scene did Gainsbourg gave a hint of the acting talent she would eventually develop.

Other members of the cast gave solid performances. I noticed that the movie featured three cast members from 1995’s“PERSUASION” – Fiona Shaw, Amanda Root and Samuel West. Shaw was very emotional, yet vicious as Jane’s cold Aunt Reed. Root gave a warm performance as Miss Temple, Jane’s favorite teacher at Lowood. And West was very effective in his portrayal of Jane’s religious cousin and savior, St. John Rivers. It seemed a pity that the movie’s script did not allow for a further look into his character. John Wood was perfectly hypocrtical and cold as Jane’s religious headmaster, Mr. Brocklehurst. Joan Plowright gave a delightful performance as the outgoing housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax. And I was surprised by Elle Macpherson’s effective portrayal of the charming and self-involved Blanche Ingram. Edward de Souza gave a solid performance as Rochester’s emotionally delicate brother-in-law, Richard Mason. But like West, he was barely in the movie long enough to make any kind of an impression. Julian Fellowes made an appearance as one of Rochester’s friends, a Colonel Dent; but aside from a few witty lines, he was not that impressive. But the one supporting performance that really impressed me came from Anna Paquin’s portryal of the young and passionate Jane. It seemed a pity that Paquin was only 13 to 14 years old at the time. Because I believe that her performance as Jane seemed ten times better than Gainsbourg.

Franco Zeffirelli’s adaptation of Brontë’s novel is not bad. Despite a shaky English accent, Hurt proved to be an effective Edward Rochester. And the movie also featured fine performances from many supporting performances. The director did a solid job of re-creating Brontë’s tale for at least three-quarters of the movie. However, the adaptation fell apart in the last quarter, when Jane flet Thornfield Hall following her aborted wedding. And Charlotte Gainsbourg’s flat performance as the titled character did not help matters. Like I said, “JANE EYRE” did not strike me as above average, but it seemed a little better than average.

“THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL” (1982) Review

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“THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL” (1982) Review

I suspect that many fans of the DC Comics character “Batman” and the “Zorro” character would be nonplussed at the idea that a novel written by a Hungary-born aristocrat had served as an inspiration for their creations. Yet, many believe that Baroness Emmuska Orczy de Orczi’s 1905 novel, “The Scarlet Pimpernel” provided Western literature with its first “hero with a secret identity”, Sir Percy Blakeney aka the Scarlet Pimpernel. 

There have been at least nineteen stage, movie or television adaptations of Orczy’s novel. Some consider the 1934 movie adaptation with Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon and Raymond Massey as the most definitive adaptation. However, there are others who are more inclined to bestow that honor on the 1982 television adaptation with Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen. I have seen both versions and if I must be honest, I am inclined to agree with those who prefer the 1982 television movie.

“THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL” – namely its 1982 re-incarnation – is based upon the 1905 novel and its 1913 sequel,“Eldorado”. Set during the early period of the French Revolution, a masked man and his band of followers rescues French aristocrats from becoming victims of the Reign of Terror under France’s new leader, Maximilien de Robespierre. The man behind the Scarlet Pimpernel’s mask – or disguises – is a foppish English baronet named Sir Percy Blakeney. For reasons never explained in the movie, Sir Percy has managed to gather a group of upper-class friends to assist him in smuggling French aristocrats out of France and sending them to the safety of England. During a visit to France, Sir Percy meets a young French government aide and the latter’s actress sister, Armand and Marguerite St. Just. He eventually befriends the brother and courts the sister.

Sir Percy also becomes aware of Armand’s superior and Marguerite’s friend, Robespierre’s agent Paul Chauvelin. Angered over Marguerite’s marriage to Sir Percy, Chauvelin has the Marquis de St. Cyr – an old enemy of Armand’s – executed in her name. After being sent to England to learn the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel, Chauvelin discovers that Armand has become part of the vigilante’s band. He blackmails Marguerite – now Lady Blakeney – into learning the identity the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Meanwhile, the Blakeney marriage has chilled, due to the news of the Marquis de St. Cyr’s execution and Marguerite’s alleged connection. But a chance for a marital reconciliation materializes for Marguerite, when she discovers the Scarlet Pimpernel’s true identity.

Thirty years have passed since CBS first aired “THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL”. In many ways, it has not lost its bite. Thanks to Tony Curtis’ production designs, late 18th century England and France (England and Wales in reality) glowed with elegance and style. Not even the questionable transfer of the film to DVD could completely erode the movie’s beauty. The movie’s visual style was aided by Carolyn Scott’s set decorations, Dennis C. Lewiston’s sharp and colorful photography, and especially Phyllis Dalton’s gorgeous costume designs, as shown in the following photographs:

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I feel that screenwriter William Bast made the very wise choice of adapting Baroness Orczy’s two novels about the Scarlet Pimpernel. In doing so, he managed to create a very clear and concise tale filled with plenty of drama and action. He also did an excellent job in mapping out the development of the story’s main characters – especially Sir Percy Blakeney, Marguerite St. Just, Paul Chauvelin and Armand St. Just. I was especially impressed by his handling of Sir Percy and Marguerite’s relationship – before and after marriage. Sir Percy’s easy willingness to believe the worst about his bride provided a few chinks into Sir Percy’s character, which could have easily morphed into a too perfect personality. More importantly, Bast’s script gave Paul Chauvelin’s character more depth by revealing the latter’s feelings for Marguerite and jealousy over her marriage to Sir Percy. Bast’s re-creation of the early years of the French Revolution and Reign of Terror struck me as well done. However, I wish he had not faithfully adapted Orczy’s decision to allow the Scarlet Pimpernel and his men to rescue the Daupin of France (heir apparent to the French throne), Louis-Charles (who became Louis XVII, upon his father’s death). In reality, Louis-Charles died in prison from tuberculosis and ill treatment at the age of ten. Surely, Bast could have created someone else important for the Scarlet Pimpernel to rescue.

“THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL” received a few Emmy nominations. But they were for technical awards – Costume Designs for Phyllis Dalton, Art Direction for Tony Curtis and even one for Outstanding Drama Special for producers David Conroy and Mark Shelmerdine. And yet . . . there were no nominations for Clive Donner and his lively direction, and no nominations for the cast. I am especially astounded by the lack of nominations for Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen. In fact, I find this criminal. All three gave superb performances as Sir Percy Blakeney; Marguerite, Lady Blakeney; and Paul Chauvelin respectively. Andrews was all over the map in his portrayal of the fop by day/hero by night Sir Percy. And yet, it was a very controlled and disciplined performance. Jane Seymour did a beautiful job of re-creating the intelligent, yet emotional Marguerite. At times, she seemed to be the heart and soul of the story. This was the first production in which I became aware of Ian McKellen as an actor and after his performance as Paul Chauvelin, I never forgot him. Not only was his portrayal of Chauvelin’s villainy subtle, but also filled with deep pathos over his feelings for Marguerite Blakeney. He also had the luck to utter one of my favorite lines in the movie in the face of his character’s defeat:

“Oh, the English, and their STU-U-U-UPID sense of fair play!”

The movie also featured some first-rate performances by the supporting cast. Malcolm Jamieson did an excellent job in portraying Marguerite’s older brother, Armand. I was also impressed by Ann Firbank, who was first-rate as the embittered Countess de Tournay; James Villiers as the opportunistic Baron de Batz; Tracey Childs as the lovesick Suzanne de Tournay; and Christopher Villiers as Sir Percy’s most stalwart assistant, Lord Anthony Dewhurst. Julian Fellowes made a very colorful and entertaining Prince of Wales. And Richard Morant proved to be even more subtle and sinister than McKellen’s Chauvelin as Maximilien de Robespierre.

After my latest viewing of “THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL”, I found myself surprisingly less supportive of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s efforts than I used to be. Perhaps I have not only become more older, but even less enthusiastic about the aristocratic elite. It was then I realized that despite the presence of Marguerite and Armand St. Just, “THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL” is based on two novels written by an aristocrat, with views that were probably as liberal as Barry Goldwater. Oh well. I still managed to garner a good deal of entertainment from a movie that has held up remarkable well after thirty years, thanks to some lively direction by Clive Donner, a first-rate script by William Bast and superb performances by the likes of Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen.

“The Wrong Class”

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“THE WRONG CLASS”

After two seasons of viewing Britain’s ITV series, “DOWNTON ABBEY”, it occurred to me that there was something off about Julian Fellowes’ portrayal of one of the major characters. That character is Matthew Crawley. And it is an error that I am surprised Fellowes had made. 

“DOWNTON ABBEY” began with news of the sinking of the White Star liner, the R.M.S. Titanic in April 1912. This famous event also caused the deaths of James and Patrick Crawley, the heirs presumptive to the Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham. This disruption in the line for the Grantham earldom forced Lord Grantham to seek his next heir, due to the fact that the title and estates only pass to male Crawleys and not to any of his three daughters. Lord Grantham’s new heir turns out to be his third cousin once removed, Matthew Crawley.

Introduced at the end of the series’ first episode, Matthew is a solicitor from Manchester, who lives with his widowed mother, former nurse Mrs. Isobel Crawley. When he receives word that he is to be the Earl of Grantham’s new heir, Matthew does not seem particular pleased. He is very reluctant to accept Lord Grantham’s invitation to move to Downton Abbey and become part of the community. Matthew is only willing to do so, only if he can continue his legal work. Members of the Crawley family such as eldest daughter Lady Mary and her grandmother Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham; along with servants such as butler Charles Carson seem to confirm Matthew’s worst opinions about life among the aristocracy. This hostility is especially apparent in his early relationship with Lady Mary and his reaction to acquiring a new valet/butler for his and Isobel’s residence, the Crawley House. Through Matthew’s first encounters with his Crawley cousins and Molesley, his new valet/butler; series creator Julian Fellowes emphasized Matthew’s social status as a member of the middle-class. And while the majority of the series’ fans and media seemed to accept this view, I find it hard to believe and accept.

These same viewers and the media seemed to believe that class structure and status in Edwardian Britain – especially for the upper classes – depends upon the size of an individual’s bank account. I am afraid that they would be wrong. Class was viewed differently than it is today. During the era of “DOWNTON ABBEY”, an individual’s social status was determined by “bloodline”, not the amount of money one possessed. This was especially true for members of the upper classes. To be a member of the upper class, one has to be part of a family that has owned land in the form of country estates for several generations. The owner of that estate was only required to in an administrative capacity and required tenant farms to earn an income. In other words, that person would be a member of the landed gentry. When an individual also has a title courtesy of royalty, he or she is considered an aristocrat. And his or her family members are also considered aristocrats . . . including cousins.

Despite being born in a middle-class environment and practicing a profession that society would view as an example of that particular class, Matthew Crawley has been a member of Britain’s upper class since birth. More importantly, as third cousin once removed and heir presumptive to the Earl of Grantham, he is also a member of the aristocracy, despite his upbringing. In fact, one can say the same about his late father, Dr. Reginald Crawley. Becoming a physician, marrying a woman from the middle-class and living in that existence did not change Dr. Crawley’s social status – something that he passed to his son, Matthew.

If the Matthew had been born out of wedlock, he would have genuinely been part of the middle-class. If his mother Isobel had been a member of Britain’s landed gentry or aristocracy instead of Dr. Crawley, Fellowes would have been correct to label Matthew as middle-class. This fate certainly awaits Lady Sybil and Tom Bronson’s new child . . . that is, if Tom manages to become a successful journalist. The Bronsons’ new child will certainly be regarded as someone from a lower class by those from the Crawleys’ social circle.

Why did Julian Fellowes label Matthew as a member of the middle-class in his script? AS a member of the upper class and a peer, he should have known better. Has he, like many others today, developed the habit of judging class solely plutocracy . . . mere wealth? That would have worked if “DOWNTON ABBEY” was set in the present time. But the series is set during a period in Britain in which class was still judged by bloodline, not the size of a bank account.

To label Matthew Crawley as a middle-class man, due to the environment in which he was raised . . . and despite his legitimate blood connections to the aristocratic Crawleys, was a mistake. It is not a mistake that will have major consequences on the series’ story lines. In fact, it is not a major mistake period. But I cannot help but feel amused whenever someone erroneously label Matthew as a member of the middle-class.

“VANITY FAIR” (2004) Review

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“VANITY FAIR” (2004) Review

William Makepeace Thackery’s 1848 novel about the life and travails of an ambitious young woman in early 19th century has generated many film and television adaptations. One of them turned out to be the 2004 movie that was directed by Mira Nair.

“VANITY FAIR” covers the early adulthood of one Becky Sharp, the pretty and ambitious daughter of an English not-so-successful painter and a French dancer during the early years from 1802 to 1830. The movie covers Becky’s life during her impoverished childhood with her painter father, during her last day as a student at Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies, where she meets her only friend Amelia Sedley – the only daughter of a slightly wealthy gentleman and her years as a governess for the daughters of a crude, yet genial baronet named Sir Pitt Crawley. While working for the Crawleys, Becky meets and falls in love with Sir Pitt’s younger son, Captain Rawdon Crawley. When Sir Pitt proposes marriage to Becky, she shocks the family with news of her secret marriage to Rawdon. The couple is ostracized and ends up living in London on Rawdon’s military pay and gambling winnings. They also become reacquainted with Amelia Sedley, who has her own problems. When her father loses his fortune, the father of her beau, George Osborne, tries to arrange a marriage between him and a Jamaican heiress. Leery of the idea of marrying a woman of mixed blood, he marries Amelia behind Mr. Obsorne’s back, and the latter disinherits him. Not long after George and Amelia’s marriage, word reaches Britain of Napoleon’s escape from Elba and control of France. Becky and Amelia follow Rawdon, George, and Dobbin, who are suddenly deployed to Brussels as part of the Duke of Wellington’s army. And life for Becky and those close to her prove to be even more difficult.

The first thing I noticed about “VANITY FAIR” was that it was one of the most beautiful looking movies I have ever seen in recent years. Beautiful and colorful. A part of me wonders if director Mira Nair was responsible for the movie’s overall look. Some people might complain and describe the movie’s look as garish. I would be the first to disagree. Despite its color – dominated by a rich and deep red that has always appealed to me – “VANITY FAIR” has also struck me as rather elegant looking film, thanks to cinematographer Declan Quinn. But he was not the only one responsible for the film’s visual look. Maria Djurkovic’s production designs and the work from the art direction team – Nick Palmer, Sam Stokes and Lucinda Thomson. All did an excellent job of not only creating what I believe to be one of the most colorful and elegant films I have ever seen, but also in re-creating early 19th century Britain, Belgium, Germany and India. But I do have a special place in my heart for Beatrix Aruna Pasztor’s costume designs. I found them absolutely ravishing. Colorful . . . gorgeous. I am aware that many did not find them historically accurate. Pasztor put a bit more Hollywood into her designs than history. But I simply do not care. I love them. And to express this love, the following is a brief sample of her costumes worn by actress Reese Witherspoon:

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I understand that Witherspoon was pregnant at the time and Pasztor had to accommodate the actress’ pregnancy for her costumes. Judging from what I saw on the screen, I am beginning to believe that Witherspoon’s pregnancy served her role in the story just fine.

Now that I have raved over the movie’s visual look and style, I might as well talk about the movie’s adaptation. When I first heard about “VANITY FAIR”, the word-of-mouth on the Web seemed to be pretty negative. Thackery’s novel is a long one – written in twenty parts. Naturally, a movie with a running time of 141 minutes was not about to cover everything in the story. And I have never been one of those purists who believe that a movie or television adaptation had to be completely faithful to its source. Quite frankly, it is impossible for any movie or television miniseries to achieve. And so, it was not that surprising that the screenplay written by Julian Fellowes, Matthew Faulk and Mark Skeet would not prove to be an accurate adaptation. I expected that. However, there were some changes I could have done without.

Becky Sharp has always been one of the most intriguing female characters in literary history. Among the traits that have made her fascinating were her ambitions, amorality, talent for manipulation and sharp tongue. As much as I enjoyed Reese Witherspoon’s performance in the movie – and I really did – I thought it was a mistake for Fellowes, Faulk and Skeet to make Becky a more “likeable” personality in the movie’s first half. One, it took a little bite not only out of the character, but from the story’s satirical style, as well. And two, I found this change unnecessary, considering that literary fans have always liked the darker Becky anyway. Thankfully, this vanilla-style Becky Sharp disappeared in the movie’s second half, as the three screenwriters returned to Thackery’s sharper and darker portrayal of the character. I was also a little disappointed with the movie’s sequence featuring Becky’s stay at the Sedley home and her seduction of Amelia’s older brother, Jos. I realize that as a movie adaptation, “VANITY FAIR” was not bound to be completely accurate as a story. But I was rather disappointed with the sequence featuring Becky’s visit to the Sedley home at Russell Square in London. Perhaps it was just me, but I found that particular sequence somewhat rushed. I was also disappointed by Nair and producer Jannette Day’s decision to delete the scene featuring Becky’s final meeting with her estranged son, Rawdy Crawley. This is not out of some desire to see Robert Pattinson on the screen. Considering that the movie’s second half did not hesitate to reveal Becky’s lack of warmth toward her son, I felt that this last scene could have remained before she departed Europe for India with Jos.

Despite my complaints and the negative view of the movie by moviegoers that demanded complete accuracy, I still enjoyed “VANITY FAIR” very much. Although I was a little disappointed in the movie’s lighter portrayal of the Becky Sharp, I did enjoy some of the other changes. I had no problem with the addition of a scene from Becky’s childhood in which she first meets Lord Steyne. I felt that this scene served as a strong and plausible omen of her future relationship with the aristocrat. Unlike others, I had no problems with Becky’s fate in the end of the movie. I have always liked the character, regardless of her amoral personality. And for once, it was nice to see her have some kind of happy ending – even with the likes of the lovesick Jos Sedley. Otherwise, I felt that “VANITY FAIR” covered a good deal of Thackery’s novel with a sense of humor and flair.

I have always found it odd that most people seemed taken aback by an American in a British role more so than a Briton in an American role. After all, it really depends upon the individual actor or actress on whether he or she can handle a different accent. In the case of Reese Witherspoon, she used a passable British accent, even if it was not completely authentic. More importantly, not only did she give an excellent performance, despite the writers’ changes in Becky’s character, she was also excellent in the movie’s second half, which revealed Becky’s darker nature.

Witherspoon was ably assisted with a first-rate cast. The movie featured fine performances from the likes of James Purefoy, Deborah Findley, Tony Maudsley, Geraldine McEwan, Eileen Atkins, Douglas Hodge, Natasha Little (who portrayed Becky Sharp in the 1998 television adaptation of the novel), and especially Romola Garai and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Amelia Sedley and George Osborne. But I was especially impressed by a handful of performances that belonged to Bob Hoskins, Rhys Ifans and Gabriel Byrne. Bob Hoskins was a delight as the slightly crude and lovesick Sir Pitt Crawley. Rhys Ifans gave one of his most subtle performances as the upright and slightly self-righteous William Dobbins, who harbored a unrequited love for Amelia. Jim Broadbent gave an intense performance as George’s ambitious and grasping father. And Gabriel Byrne was both subtle and cruel as the lustful and self-indulgent Marquis of Steyne.

In the end, I have to say that I cannot share the negative opinions of “VANITY FAIR”. I realize that it is not a “pure” adaptation of William Makepeace Thackery’s novel or that it is perfect. But honestly, I do not care. Despite its flaws, “VANITY FAIR” proved to be a very entertaining movie for me. And I would have no problem watching it as much as possible in the future.

“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.

Series One 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 Onewas 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.

“GOSFORD PARK” (2001) Review

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“GOSFORD PARK” (2001) Review

In 1999, actor Bob Balaban had approached director Robert Altman with the idea of developing a film together. Altman suggested a whodunit set at an English country estate. The two approached actor/writer Julian Fellowes if he could take their concept and write a screenplay. Their collective efforts resulted in the 2001 comedy-drama, “GOSFORD PARK”.

In the movie, a group of wealthy Britons, a British actor/entertainer, an American movie producer and their servants gather at Gosford Park, the country estate of a wealthy industrialist named Sir William McCordle, for a shooting party over the weekend. Sir William is not a popular man. His wife and most of his in-laws despise him. And most of his servants (aside from one or two) dislike him. When Sir William is found murdered inside his study during the second night of the weekend, there seemed to be a list of suspects who have a very good reason to kill him:

*Lady Sylvia McCordle – Sir William’s bitchy wife, who despises him and had married Sir William for his money

*Commander Anthony Meredith – One of Sir William’s brothers-in-law, who is desperate for the industrialist’s financial backing in a venture regarding shoes for Sudanese soldiers

*Raymond, Lord Stockbridge – Sir William’s snobbish brother-in-law, whose wife might be having an affair with him

*Lady Lavinia Meredith – Sir William’s younger sister-in-law and devoted wife to Commander Meredith

*Mrs. Croft – Gosford Park’s head cook and former employee at one of Sir William’s factories, who despised him

*Mrs. Wilson – Gosford Park’s housekeeper, Mrs. Croft younger sister and another former employee of one of Sir William’s factories

*Lord Rupert Standish – a penniless aristocrat who wants to overcome Sir William’s opposition and marry his only child, Isobel McCordle

*Constance, Countess of Trentham – Sir William’s aunt-in-law, who is dependent upon a regular allowance from him

The weekend party include other guests and servants, such as:

*Mary Maceachran – Lady Trentham’s lady maid

*Elsie – Head housemaid whom Mary befriended, and who was definitely having an affair with Sir William

*Ivor Novello – Famous actor/singer and Sir William’s cousin

*Morris Weissman – Producer from Fox Studios

*Henry Denton – Weissman’s valet, who is actually a Hollywood minor actor studying for an upcoming role

*Robert Parks – Lord Stockbridge’s new valet

*Jennings – Major domo of Gosford Park, who has a secret to hide

*Honorable Freddie Nesbitt – A local impoverished aristocrat who had earlier seduced Isobel. At the shooting party, he tries to blackmail her into convincing Sir William to give him a job

*Mabel Nesbitt – The daughter of a self-made glove manufacturer whom Freddie married for her money, before spending the latter.

*Louisa, Lady Stockbridge – Sir William’s other sister-in-law, with whom he might have had an affair

*Probert – Sir William’s personal valet and one of the few who actually grieved him.

Needless to say, the list of characters is a long one. Following Sir William’s murder, the local police in the form of one Inspector Thompson and Constable Dexter arrive to solve the murder. Being incompetent and a complete snob, Inspector Thompson seemed to regard the higher class guests as worthy suspects for the murder of Sir William. Constable Dexter, on the other hand, seemed more interested in Jennings’ World War I past and the clues at hand. In fact, Dexter managed to ascertain that Sir William had been poisoned by one person, before another drove an ax into his back. But it was lady’s maid Mary Maceachran who managed to figure out the culprits in the end.

I cannot deny that after ten years or so, “GOSFORD PARK” remains a big favorite of mine. When the movie first reached the movie screens in December 2001, many admitted to enjoying the film, but predicted that it would age with time. There are perhaps some critics who believe this has actually happened. But I do not agree. Considering the increasingly bleak social landscape of today, I believe that the theme behind “GOSFORD PARK” has remained relevant as ever. Despite my love for the film, would I consider it perfect? Honestly? No. Other critics may be able to find more than two flaws in the film. On the other hand, I was able to find two that bothered me.

The pacing for most of “GOSFORD PARK” seemed to be on spot . . . at least for me. It possessed a great set-up for introducing the characters, the setting’s atmosphere and the revelation of the suspects’ motives for wanting Sir William dead. However, the murder did not occur until two-thirds into the movie. Once Inspector Thompson appeared on the scene, the movie’s pacing began to drag. And it did not pick up again until the movie’s last twenty minutes. For me, the pacing during the last third of the film struck me as merely a minor flaw. There was another that proved to be a bigger one for me – namely the Henry Denton character.

I have nothing against Ryan Phillipe’s performance as Denton. Trust me, I thought he did a superb job. But Julian Fellowes’ portrayal of the character left me shaking my head in confusion. According to the script, Denton was an American actor for Fox Studios who accompanied Morris Weissman as his Scottish valet in order to study British servants for a role in a“CHARLIE CHAN” movie. This little deception strikes me as something actors did for a role during the past thirty or forty years . . . certainly not in 1932. The deception ended when Henry admitted his true identity to the police. But the one thing that really disturbed me about the character was his attempted rape of Mary Maceachran during the first night of the weekend. Why did Fellowes include that scenario in the first place? Henry had already made a date for some nocturnal activity with Lady Sylvia McCordle, several minutes earlier. If he had already scheduled a night for sex with the mistress of the house, why have him assault Mary a few mintues later? I suspect that Fellowes wanted to establish a character that most of the characters – aristocratic and lower-class – would dislike. Both aristocrats and servants alike reacted with glee when one of the servants, portrayed by Richard Grant, dumped a cup of hot tea (or coffee) on Henry’s lap. With Henry being an American, I can only assume he made an easier target for the derision of everyone. I can only wonder why Altman and Balaban did not question this heavy-handed characterization of Henry. Regardless of Fellowes’ reason for vilifying Henry, I found the rape attempt as an example of clumsy and unnecessary writing on his part.

Thankfully, most of “GOSFORD PARK” proved to be quite a cherished gem. Not even the flaws I had pointed out in the above paragraphs can overcome my appreciation of this movie. Altman, Balaban and Fellowes took a classic literary device – “country house mystery” – and used it to explore the British class system of the early 1930s. “GOSFORD PARK”revealed the changes that affected Britain’s social landscape by 1932. Aside from Lord Stockbridge, most of the aristocratic characters seemed to be struggling to make ends meet financially in order to maintain a lifestyle they had been born into. Those from a middle-class or working-class background like Sir William McCordle, his “cousin” Ivor Novello, Morris Weissman and Mabel Nesbitt have become successful, wealthy or in the case of Mabel, the offspring of a self-made man. Their success and wealth has allowed them to socialize amongt the aristocracy and upper-class. But their origins continue to attract scorn from the likes of Lady Sylvia, her sister Lady Lavinia and their aunt, the Countess of Trentham. The servants featured in “GOSFORD PARK” seemed to be divided into three categories – those who are blindly loyal to their employers; those like Elsie, Robert Parks and Mrs. Croft, who despise their employers; and those like Mary, Jennings and Mrs. Wilson who do not love or hate their employers, but simply take pride in their professionalism.

What I found interesting about “GOSFORD PARK” is that both servants and guests possessed both positive and negative traits. The exceptions to the rule proved to be Mary, who struck me as a bit too ideal for my tastes; and of course, Henry Denton, whose portrayal I had already complained about. Most people would add that Sir William had also been portrayed as a one-dimensional villain. But the humiliations he endured under the snobbish Lady Sylvia and Elsie’s warm recollections of him saved the character from such a fate.

Another aspect about “GOSFORD PARK” that I truly enjoyed was its overall production design. Stephen Altman did a superb job of re-creating the atmosphere of a country manor home in the early 1930s. He was ably supported by Anna Pinnock’s set decorations, along with John Frankis and Sarah Hauldren’s art direction. For me, it was Jenny Bevan’s costumes and the women’s hairstyles that made me realize that the production team really knew what they were doing. I have rarely come across a movie or television production set in the 1930s that was completely accurate – especially in regard to costumes and hairstyles.

There were plenty of first-rate performances in “GOSFORD PARK”. But there were a handful that stood out for me. Both Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith earned Academy Award nominations for their portrayals of Mrs. Wilson and the Countess of Trentham, respectively. Mirren was superb as the no-nonsense housekeeper, whose stoic personality hid a passionate nature that would eventually be revealed upon a discovery she made. In my review of Season One of “DOWNTON ABBEY”, I had complained that Maggie Smith’s portrayal of the Dowager Countess of Grantham bore a strong resemblance to her Lady Trentham in “GOSFORD PARK”. I stand by that observation. But there is something about Smith’s portrayal of Lady Trentham that struck me as a lot more subtle and a little more poisonous in her class bigotry. Clive Owen gave a charismatic performance as the mysterious valet, Robert Parks, whose past attracts the attention of both Mary Maceachran and Mrs. Wilson.

Michael Gambon gave one of his more interesting performances as the mystery’s main victim, Sir William McCordle. Superficially, he was as crude and cold-blooded as many regarded the character. Yet, Gambon injected a certain charm into his performance that made it easier for me to see why Sir William had a way with the ladies. Bob Balaban provided some fine comic moments as the droll Hollywood producer that harbored a slight contempt toward his aristocratic hosts behind a polite veneer. I have already pointed out Ryan Phillipe’s portrayal of Henry Denton. I must admit that he did a first-rate job in conveying the portrait of a smooth hustler. Many have commented on Maggie Smith’s wit in the movie. However, I thought that Emily Watson’s portrayal of head housemaid Elsie was equally sharp and sardonic. Alan Bates gave one of his last best performances as the stuffy, yet likable major domo of the McCordle household, who harbored a secret about his past as a conscientious objector during World War I. At the same time, Watson was wonderfully poignant as one of the few people who not only mourned Sir William, but appreciated his friendship and words of wisdom to her. I found it surprising that the movie’s moral center proved to the be the sweet and eventually wise Mary Maceachran, Lady Trentham’s new personal maid. Kelly MacDonald was in her mid-20s when she did this movie and her character was not particularly flashy in compare to many of the other roles. Yet, not only did she held her own against the likes of Maggie Smith and Emily Watson, she did a great job in becoming the movie’s emotional anchor . . . even if her character was a bit too ideal for my tastes.

“GOSFORD PARK” earned a good deal of accolades after its release. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won a Best Original Screenplay for Julian Fellowes. It also earned five Golden Globe awards and Robert Altman won for Best Director. Would I have voted “GOSFORD PARK” as the Best Picture of 2001? Not really. I was more impressed by Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the first “LORD OF THE RINGS” movie. But thanks to a superb cast, Julian Fellowes’ screenplay and Robert Altman’s direction, it not proved to be one of the cinematic gems of 2001, but also of the entire decade.

“UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” (2010) – Series One Retrospective

“UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” (2010) – Series One Retrospective

Not long after ITV aired its premiere of Julian Fellowes and Gareth Neame’s successful series, “DOWNTON ABBEY”, the BBC announced its plans to air an updated version of the old 1970s television classic, “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”. The news took me by surprise. I had naturally assumed that the series’ creators Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins decided to revive the series in response to the news about “DOWNTON ABBEY”. Had I been wrong? I do not know. Did it really matter? I do not think so. 

The new “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” picked up six years following the old series’ finale. The London townhouse at 165 Eaton Place in the Belgravia neighborhood is no longer occupied by any member of the Bellamy family. A Foreign Office diplomat and his wife – Sir Hallam Holland and Lady Agnes Holland – have returned to Britain and inherited the Eaton Place townhouse. The couple hired former parlourmaid Rose Buck, now running her own agency for domestic servants, to find them staff as they renovate the house to its former glory. The Hollands are forced to deal with the arrivals of Sir Hallam’s mother, Maud, Dowager Lady Holland and her Sikh secretary Amanjt Singh; and Lady Agnes’ sister, Lady Persephone Towyn – all of whom cause major stirs within the new household. The three-episode series spanned the year 1936 – covering the death of King George V, the Battle of Cable Street and King Edward VIII’s abdication.

Because it came on the heels of the critical darling, “DOWNTON ABBEY”“UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” received a good share of negative criticism from the media and television viewers. And if they were not comparing it to the series written by Julian Fellowes, they were comparing it to the old “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” from the 1970s. Among the negative press it received was a report of a brief clash between Marsh and Fellowes regarding the two series. If I must be honest, I was just as guilty as the others for I had believed the negative press without having seen the series. But my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to watch it.

I did have a few problems with “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”. It had its moments of over-the-top maudlin, courtesy of screenwriter Heidi Thomas. I suppose I should not have been surprised. Thomas had served as screenwriter for 2007’s “CRANFORD” and its 2009 sequel. And she managed to inject plenty of wince-inducing sentiment into those productions, as well. I also found Rose Buck’s hunt for the Hollands’ new staff rather tiresome. It dominated the first half of Episode One, “The Fledgling” and I nearly gave up on the series. And I also found the cook Clarice Thackeray’s encounter with society photographer Cecil Beaton disgustingly sentimental. But . . . the encounter led to one of the best cat fights I have seen on television, so I was able to tolerate it. I have one last problem – namely the series’ three episode running time. Three episodes? Really? I would have given it at least five or six. Instead, the three episodes forced the first series to pace a lot faster than I would have liked.

For me, the virtues of “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” far outweighed the flaws. First of all, I was delighted that Marsh, Atkins and Thomas had decided to set the new series in the 1930s. I have been fascinated with that decade for a long time. It witnessed a great deal of potential change and conflict throughout Europe – including changes within Britain’s Royal Family that had a major impact upon the nation. “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” did an excellent job in conveying how these changes affected ordinary Britons and the Holland household in particular. Many had complained about the strong, political overtones that permeated “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”. I, on the other hand, loved it. The political overtones not only suited the series’ 30s setting but also jibed with the fact that one of the major characters happened to be a diplomat from the Foreign Office, with friendly ties to a member of the Royal Family.

Production wise, “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” looked gorgeous. Designer Eve Stewart did a superb job in re-creating London in the mid-1930s for the series. Along with set decorator Julia Castle, she converted 165 Eaton Place into a wealth of Art Deco eye candy. Amy Roberts’ costumes – especially for Keeley Hawes and Claire Foy – were outstanding and contributed to the series’ 1930s look. My only complaint regarding the series’ production is the series’ theme and score. Quite frankly, the only memorable thing about Daniel Pemberton’s work was that I found it too light for my tastes. It suited Heidi Thomas’ occasional forays into sentimentality very well. Unfortunately.

Not being that familiar with the original “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” series from the 70s, I did not find myself comparing the old cast with the new one. First of all, I thought the new cast did just fine – including the recurring characters. Blake Ritson gave a subtle performance as Prince George, Duke of Kent and youngest living brother to King Edward VIII. I noticed that Thomas took great care to ensure that Ritson’s Duke of Kent would be critical of Wallis Simpson’s pro-Nazi sympathies. I found this interesting, considering of his past reputation as a Nazi sympathizer. Speaking of Mrs. Simpson, I was slightly disappointed by Emma Clifford’s portrayal of the future Duchess of Windsor. The actress portrayed Mrs. Simpson as some kind of negative archetype of American women found in many British productions – gauche and verbose. This portrayal seemed completely opposite of how Mrs. Simpson had been described in the past – cool and tart. Edward Baker-Duly was given a more ambiguous character to portray – namely German ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop – which allowed him to give a more subtle performance.

I found the casting for the Holland servants very satisfying. Many have complained that Jean Marsh’s role as Rose Buck seemed woefully reduced in compared to the old production. If her role had been reduced, I did not mind. After all, Rose was a familiar figure and I believe it was time for the lesser-known characters to shine. As much as I had enjoyed Adrian Scarborough’s solid yet nervous butler, Mr. Pritchard, and Anne Reid’s tart-tongued cook Clarice Thackeray; I found myself impressed by Neil Jackson’s cool portrayal of the ambiguous chauffeur Harry Spargo. I thought he did a great job in conveying the changing passions of Harry, without resorting to histronics. Ellie Kendrick did an excellent job in her portrayal of the young and very spirited housemaid, Ivy Morris. Although Art Malik seemed a bit noble as the Dowager Lady Holland’s Sikh secretary, Mr. Amanjit, I believe that he managed to come into his own when his character befriended the German-Jewish refugee Rachel Perlmutter in Episode Two, “The Ladybird”. Like Scarborough and Red, Helen Bradbury gave solid performance as Frau Perlmutter. However, there were a few moments when she managed to inject a great deal of pathos into her performance, making it a pity that she only appeared in one episode. Heidi Thomas’ portrayal of the Hollands’ servants really impressed me. She managed to portray them as multi-dimensional characters, instead of the one-dimensional portrayals that marred the characterizations of the servants featured in Series One of “DOWNTON ABBEY”.

Heidi Thomas certainly did a marvelous job with her characterizations of the members of the Holland family. I had noticed that most fans and critics were impressed by Eileen Atkins’ portrayal of the Maud, Dowager Lady Holland. I cannot deny that she did a superb job. Atkins was overbearing, intelligent, wise and impetuous. But . . . the Lady Holland character also struck me as a remake of the Dowager Countess of Grantham character from “DOWNTON ABBEY” . . . who struck me as a remake of the Countess of Trentham character from “GOSFORD PARK”. In other words, the Lady Holland character struck me as being a somewhat unoriginal character. One could almost say the same about the Sir Hallam Holland character, portrayed by Ed Stoppard. Many fans have complained about his “noble” personality and penchant for political correctness – especially in his handling of Lotte, the orphaned daughter of Holland maid, Rachel Perlmutter, and his distaste toward the British Fascist movement. However, Stoppard did an excellent job in making Sir Hallam a flesh-and-blood character. And this came about, due to Stoppard’s opportunity to reveal Sir Hallam’s reaction to the conflict between his mother and wife, making him seem like a bit of a pushover.

But for me, the two most interesting characters in the series proved to be Lady Agnes Holland and Lady Persephone Towyn, the two daughters of an impoverished Welsh peer. In their unique ways, the two sisters struck me as very complex and ambiguous. At first glance, Keeley Hawes’ portrayal of Lady Agnes Holland seemed like a cheerful, slightly shallow woman bubbling with excitement over establishing a new home in London. Hawes’ performance, along with Thomas’ script, even managed to inject some pathos into the character after the revelations about Lady Agnes’ past failures to maintain a successful pregnancy. But once her mother-in-law and rebellious sister became a permanent fixture in her house, the cracks in Lady Agnes’ personality began to show. Thanks to Hawes’ superb performance, audiences were allowed glimpses into the darker side of Lady Agnes’ personality. After watching Series One of“UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”, many would view Lady Agnes’ younger sister – Lady Persephone – as the series’ villain. And she seemed so perfect for the role, thanks to Claire Foy’s brilliant performance. Her Lady Persephone was a vain, arrogant and temperamental bitch, who treated the Hollands’ staff like dirt – save for Harry Spago, with whom she conducted an affair. At first, it seemed that Harry managed to bring out Lady Persephone’s softer side, especially in her ability to emphasize with his woes regarding the country’s social system. Harry also introduced her to the British Fascist movement. But whereas he ended up finding it repellent, Lady Persephone became even more involved . . . to the point that she developed a relationship with the German ambassador, Joachim von Ribbentrop, before following him back to Germany.

I am not going to pretend that the new “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” is an exceptional series. Because I do not think that it is. Basically, it is simply a continuation of the old series from the 1970s. I thought that its running time was ridiculously short – three episodes. It could have benefited from at least two or three more episodes. And screenwriter Heidi Thomas marred it even further with a good deal of over-the-top sentimentality, especially in the first and third episodes. However, Thomas managed to tone down that same sentimentality in the characters. Nor did she follow Julian Fellowes’ mistake in “DOWNTON ABBEY” by portraying the servants as one-dimensional characters. And the cast, led by Ed Stoppard and Keeley Hawes, were first rate. But what really worked for me was the 1930s setting that allowed Thomas to inject the political turmoil that made that era so memorable. I only hope that Thomas will continue that setting in the second series. “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” may not have been perfect, but I believe it was a lot better than a good number of critics and fans have deemed it.

“DOWNTON ABBEY” (2010) – Series One Retrospective

“DOWNTON ABBEY” (2010) – Series One 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 a swot. 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.