Period dramas

Extremely predictable and extremely dull: Downton Abbey reviewed

The much-anticipated film version of Downton Abbey has arrived and I suppose you could describe it as the Avengers Assemble of period drama, where everyone turns up and just does it all over again, but minus the throat kicks in this particular instance. Also, it’s critic-proof and the fans will race to see it even though it is, in truth, extremely predictable as well as extremely dull. Lady Mary? Wasn’t she interesting once? Didn’t she kill a Turk with sex? Why is she now so blah? Some throat kicks would have been welcome, actually. More throat kicks and fewer of Carson’s moralistic pep talks might have worked wonders. The film

O brother, where are thou?

Sunset is French-Hungarian writer-director Laszlo Nemes’s follow-up to his astonishing Oscar-winning debut, Son of Saul. This time round the film is set as the Austro-Hungarian Empire is on the brink of collapse, and it is confounding, but not in a good way, as it’s as turgid as it is baffling. I’ve seen it twice now, and it was as turgid as it was baffling on both occasions. Disappointing, I know, but on the plus side the backdrop is a high-end millinery establishment, so the hats are fab. Truly. It opens seductively enough, in bustling Budapest in 1913. It opens as if this were a Dickens or Dostoyevsky, but it’s not

Peak beard

Mary Queen of Scots is a historical costume drama that, unlike The Favourite, does not breathe new life into the genre, or any kind of life, even of the old accustomed sort. It is lifeless, in other words, and quite the slog, with jerky pacing, such an abundance of bearded men you lose track of which bearded man is which, and it reduces two of history’s most fascinating women to not much of anything. However, on the plus side, the scenery is ravishing, the two leads (Saoirse Ronan as Mary and Margot Robbie as Elizabeth I) are better than the film probably deserves, and the hair and make-up are cheeringly

Men behaving badly | 1 November 2018

Mike Leigh’s Peterloo is one of those films where you keep waiting for it to get good, and waiting and waiting. It’s Mike Leigh; it’s bound to get good soon. But it never does. It’s essentially two hours of men shouting at each other, followed by a burst of violence. I sincerely wish it were otherwise, but there you are. This is the story of the Peterloo Massacre (16 August 1819), when government-backed cavalry charged a peaceable crowd of around 60,000 who had gathered in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, to demand universal suffrage. Fifteen were killed and hundreds more injured, including women and children. The film has been getting it

Let’s talk about sex | 6 September 2018

This week was bad news for fans of good television drama series — mainly because there’s now three more of the things to keep up with if you don’t want to feel left out of office conversations. The one that stirred up the most advance media excitement was Wanderlust (BBC1, Tuesday), on the traditional grounds that it promised to be unusually explicit about sex. And in that, it certainly didn’t disappoint. The first episode began with a flurry of masturbation (not a phrase I can remember using in a TV column before). First, Joy, a middle-aged therapist, slipped a hand beneath the morning bedclothes — until her teenage son came

The beautiful and the damned

Babylon Berlin (Sky Atlantic), the epic German-made Euro noir detective drama set during Weimar, is so addictively brilliant that I’d almost advise you not to start watching it. After the two seasons to date you’ll be left feeling like the morphine-addicted hero Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) when deprived of his fix. That’s because they haven’t even started making season three yet, so you’ll have an excruciatingly long wait to see what becomes of its cast of immensely captivating characters: Bruno Wolter (Peter Kurth), Rath’s corrupt, lying, whoring but affable sidekick; the treacherous White Russian Countess (Severija Janusauskaite), who dresses as a man for her floor-filling cabaret act; Charlotte Ritter (Liv

Adult entertainment | 16 November 2017

Any readers of the Sun who excitedly tuned in to Howards End on Sunday night with their pause button at the ready will, I fear, have been in for a disappointment. Before the programme went out, the paper had assured them that this new BBC1 adaptation would ‘do a Poldark’, with ‘a hot cast’ providing ‘a sexed-up remake’ of the 1992 Merchant Ivory film. (The sub-editors may have missed a trick by not headlining the piece, ‘It’s E.M. Phwoar-ster!’) In the event, what they got was a quietly thoughtful exploration of Edwardian intellectual life. The first episode, in fact, didn’t differ very much from the non-sexed-up film version — and

Ivory towers

Great novels rarely make great movies, but for half a century one director has been showing all the others how it’s done. James Ivory has worked his magic on all sorts of authors, from Kazuo Ishiguro to Henry James, and this week the finest of all his adaptations returns to the big screen. ‘A film that’s almost two and a half hours long, non-stop talking, set in the Edwardian era — who would have thought that would be such a huge success?’ says Ivory, on the phone from his home in upstate New York. Yet somehow, this taciturn director turned a wordy novel by E.M. Forster into a gripping drama.

Static electricity

My Cousin Rachel is an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s mystery-romance and, even though it stars the forever wonderful Rachel Weisz, it’s more sedate than suspenseful, more tasteful than dangerous. This should be a creepy, gripping tale of paranoia, deception, lust, and suspicions that are founded, unfounded, founded, then unfounded again. (There is a great deal of founding and unfounding on the suspicion front.) But the high-end, glossy period trappings — the frocks; the stately mansions; the teal drawing rooms; the horses galloping along scenic cliff paths; that wisteria — don’t play into a dark, gothic atmosphere. It is highly watchable, I have to say, but it won’t have you

Poetry in motion | 6 April 2017

Films can be poetry — or like poetry; or poetic, at least — but can poetry ever be film? That is our question for today, and I’ll attempt to answer it, although there is absolutely no saying that I’ll be able to do so. Always touch and go, that. A Quiet Passion is Terence Davies’s biopic of the 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson, author of ‘Hope is the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul’ and ‘Because I Could Not Stop for Death’ (look it up; do) and, all in all, 1,800 (incredibly wonderful) poems, of which only 10 were published in her lifetime. Who was this woman? She’s

Super Norma

The Royal Opera has opened the season with a triumph, and in one of the most difficult of operas, Bellini’s Norma. Not only is the work itself extraordinarily demanding on its three leading singers, but it is the one opera which is now so indelibly linked to one singer that all later performances are defined by whether they are in the same mould or whether they are resolutely different. One can’t envy listeners who have never heard Callas, in one or another of her many recordings of Norma, because it is so overwhelming an experience, but it would make life less disappointing than it already tends to be. I preferred

James Delingpole

Victoria’s secret: none of it’s true

Did you know that Queen Victoria might never have married Prince Albert had it not been for an amazing stroke of luck on a woodland walk in Windsor Great Park, involving the queen’s beloved spaniel Dash. Dash, as good fortune would have it, managed to break his leg on a handy knife that someone had left lying around. And the hitherto remote and stuffy German princeling, carelessly ripping yet another of his shirts (the second in about a week) to create a makeshift bandage, splinted Dash’s leg with such tender care that flighty Emma knew at once that cold, disapproving Mr Knightley was the man for her. And that, I’m

Jane Austen on speed

Love & Friendship is based on the little-known Jane Austen epistolary novella, Lady Susan, which was not published until after Austen’s death, and was then ill received. As G.K. Chesterton declared: ‘I, for one, would have willingly left Lady Susan in the wastepaper basket.’ Knowing what I know now and having, in fact, read Lady Susan, I, for one, would have willingly punched G.K. Chesterton in the head, had I been around at that time. And, had I wished to torment him further, which is highly likely, I might have then told him that it would one day be turned into the most delicious hoot of a film, so put

Strange ways

BBC One’s 2015 choice of Sunday-night drama series is beginning to resemble the career of the kind of Hollywood actor who alternates between reliable crowd-pleasers and more eccentric personal projects. The year started with the return of the much-loved Last Tango in Halifax, followed by the distinctly peculiar A Casual Vacancy. Now, after the mainstream triumph of Poldark, we get Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell — which, whatever else you might think about it, definitely can’t be accused of feeling like drama by committee. Based on Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel, the programme opened in the early 19th century, with the Peninsular War going badly and, worse still, magic — once

Cold frames

A Little Chaos is a period drama directed by Alan Rickman and starring Kate Winslet as a woman charged to design and build a grand fountain garden for Louis XIV at Versailles. The film is, I noted from the poster, ‘the official film of RHS Gardening Week’, which may or may not be a hotly contested title, I just don’t know. All I can tell you is that it is, in fact, more of a love story than a horticultural story, and while it has occasional pleasing moments, and is lavishly costumed, it manages to do what I do whenever I try my hand at gardening. That is, despite my