At The Movies

Two Touching British Products: One a Familiar Charmer and the Other a Poignant Literary Biography

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Downton Abbey: A New Era

They’re back!  No, no, I do not mean another “Chucky” horror flick but rather another chapter of the “Downton Abbey” saga.  The Granthams and the Crawleys are back, this time with an overseas twist.  “The New Era” has, besides the familiar cast, yet another beguiling script from the series’ creator, Julian Fellowes, and is directed by Simon Curtis (The film, now in theaters, is rated “PG” and runs 124 minutes.)

A pre-credit opening introduces us to the ever-anxious Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle), who offers a useful recap of the last “Downton” film (2019) and catches us up on the Granthams, the Crawleys, and their extended family as well as the staffers who serve them.  

It is 1928, and Violet, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) learns that she has inherited a villa in Southern France from “an old friend.” In the meantime, Downton has been selected by a British film company as the location for a frilly period piece and will be used as the film’s set.  The Crawleys roughly split into two factions, one to visit the villa headed by Lord and Lady Grantham (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern)  and the other to observe the shoot, headed by Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery). 

The English contingent is welcomed by a genial relative, the Marquis of Montmirail      (Jonathan Zaccai), but must contend with an intransigent Mademoiselle Montmirail  (French actress Natalie Baye), who refuses the family’s right to the property. The dilemma for the group back at Downton is that the film company—already on shaky ground financially—learns that, with the beginning of the sound era, their silent film might be shut down. 

In the latter instance, movie fans will recognize the premise of the classic “Singing in the Rain,” wherein a harsh-voiced film star is replaced by the young ingenue whose delivery turns a silent movie clinker into a smash.  Here, the voice savior is Lady Mary herself, who records lines to bury the crass cockney accent of the lead actress Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock). 

For the rest, the Downton cast brings comfortable changes on their standard roles from the original series and earlier film.  For example, hide-bound Carson (Jim Carter)  thinks the movie escapade is an affront to Downton’s dignity while bubbly Daisy (Sophie McShera), besotted with Hollywood, is thrilled to ogle the stars. Lord Grantham plays variations on his usual befuddled self, being both skeptical of the movie business as well as his own lineage. Both Violet and Mrs. Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) pursue their typical sniping—though their verbal tussling moves towards affection. Newcomers to the cast include English studs known to American TV audiences: Dominick West as Guy Dexter, the smooth star of the film, and Hugh Dancy as the decent film director, Jack Barber, who falls for Lady Mary.  

Major family mileposts are again marked, with the film opening with a lively wedding scene between Tom Branson (Alan Leech) and his intended, Lucy (Tuppence Middleton).  There are an additional three other couplings at the end of the show, as well as one touching and considerate death. The latter provides a satisfying wrap-up for this film as well as for what has become a cultural icon (at least according to Mr. Molesley). Bon Voyage!

Benediction 

Written and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Terence Davies, “Benediction” explores the complex and turbulent life of renowned WWI poet Siegfried Sassoon (the convincing Jack Lowden), a soldier who survived the horrors of war. Decorated for his bravery, he was also an outspoken critic of the British government’s continuation of the war.  His career was a long one (he died in 1967), engaged in literary pursuits and earlier involved with the London demimonde of creative gay life when he returned from service (the film, running 137 minutes, will open in the DC area in theaters in early June and is rated “PG-13”). 

Jack Lowden, in military garb, stars as British poet Siegfried Sassoon in “Benediction.” Photo: Laurence Cendrowicz; courtesy of Roadside Attractions

His most memorable poetry was inspired by his grisly experiences on the Western Front, and he became one of the best-known war poets of the era.  After having seen his own men and others of his age slaughtered in the trenches of France, he wrote his company commander with a blunt critique of the war effort as a waste. That critique led to his being consigned to a psychiatric clinic in Edinburgh after the war where he met another future war poet, Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), who ultimately returned to action and died in 1918. 

Comfortable as a member of the aristocracy as well as a stalwart of London’s literary and stage scene, Sassoon spent the Twenties and Thirties in affairs with several men,  always producing poetry but branching out into essays and religious contemplations, all the while struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality. This interim segment, flush with Twenties clichés and swishy love objects—including the snarky songwriter Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine)—is too long and repetitive and weakens the picture. Eventually tiring of the gay scene, Sassoon meets and then marries Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips), with whom he lived into his 80’s.

Davies, creator of only a few films, usually based on serious literary works (among them “The House of Mirth” and “The Deep Blue Sea”), here uses his usual tasteful style with fixed takes and muted background music. It is a leisurely approach that might be seen as boring, but which, for others (like this reviewer), can seem full of unspoken portent. He can also, because of his normal restraint, turn commonplace scenes into surges of emotion.

The best exemplar of the latter ends the film. Fast-forwarding into the 1960’s, we find Sassoon (now a curmudgeon played by Peter Capaldi) walking home and sitting down for a rest on a park bench. The aging poet then slowly morphs into the young soldier in military dress looking straight at the camera. As a poignant refrain from a Ralph Vaughan Williams symphony begins softly on the sound track, the young Sassoon begins to weep. Then, as the theme wells up, his agonized face slides back to almost normal, only for him to weep again.  Go to black. 

“Benediction” also features a penultimate closing that is just as affecting. It is the reading of a poem though, curiously, not one of Sassoon’s. There is a static shot of an ailing Owen, sitting in a wheel chair back at the Edinburgh clinic, staring straight ahead,  The over-voice narrator reads one of Owens’ most famous war poems, “Disabled,” giving final voice to the waste of war that never left Sassoon’s consciousness.

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of the book “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.