“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.

“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.