Downton Abbey: series 3 episode 2


SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Brian Percival. Originally broadcast: 23 September 2012, ITV.

Mary and Matthew are back from their honeymoon, Violet tries to persuade Cora’s mother to save Downton, and Mrs Hughes finds a lump…

When is it set? 1920. Mary says she’s glad she went to Cannes before the summer takes hold. (Having said that, the scenes in York have an autumnal feel with leaves blowing around in the wind.)

Where is it set? The estate. The house. Isobel’s refuge for fallen women in York. Sir Anthony’s house. Prison. Dr Clarkson’s office. Violet’s house.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Ethel, the maid who left the series after falling pregnant, is back. Isobel finds her living on the streets of York.
* Cora’s brother is mentioned. His mother says Harold hates to leave America.

Best bits:
* Matthew has a spruce new car. Anachronistically, it’s a 1927 AC Six.
* Robert asks his new son-in-law how the honeymoon went. “My eyes have been opened,” says Matthew knowingly. “Don’t I know it,” replies Robert.
* Mr Molesley is asked to work at the big house as Matthew’s valet – he literally runs up the path to the house.
* Cora’s mother, Mrs Levinson, blithely says she’s not able to help Downton financially. She explains that both her and Violet’s husbands tied up their respective capitals tightly before they were taken. “Lord Grantham wasn’t taken,” says Violet, sadly. “He died.”

Worst bits:
* Mrs Levinson misunderstands a euphemism, thinking that Isobel helps women who have fallen over. (There’s a good punchline, though. When the reality is explained to her, she’s also told the women are sent away so they can rest. “I should think they need it,” she says.)
* Matthew, who once objected to having a valet, now embarrasses Alfred in front of everyone by revealing that he’s burnt a hole in a jacket. What an arse.
* Thomas Barrow takes against new footman Alfred and plays cruel pranks on him. Of course he does.
* On the night of a big dinner, the kitchen’s range fails. “We’ve twenty lords and ladies in the drawing room waiting for dinner and we’ve got no dinner to give them!” says Mrs Patmore. The spirit of a French and Saunders sketch is never that far away from this show.

Real history:
* Violet references the Prime Minster, David Lloyd-George (1863-1945), saying that surely even he wouldn’t want the family turfed out of Downton.
* After his posh shirts are stolen, Robert has to dress relatively informally for dinner. “I feel like a Chicago bootlegger,” he laments. The 18th Amendment to the US Constitution, which prohibited the sale of alcohol, came fully into effect on 17 January 1920.
* At the impromptu buffet caused by the kitchen range being out of order, Mrs Levinson leads everyone in a sing-song of the 1910 ballad Let Me Call Your Sweetheart by Leo Friedman and Beth Slater Whitson.
* Miss O’Brien jokes about Thomas sounding like “Tom Mix in a Wild West picture show”. Mix (1880-1940) was Hollywood’s first big Western star. He appeared in 291 films – all silent up to this point, of course, so how Miss O’Brien knows what he sounded like is another matter.

Upstairs, Downton: The Bellamys were in danger of losing everything in series two of Upstairs, Downstairs. Like in Downton, the saviour was a suitor of the household’s daughter: the character of Julias Karekin, who bought the house in The Fruits of Love (1973) and conveniently gave it back to the family.

Maggie Smithism of the week: After Mrs L suggests an indoor picnic to solve the dinner crisis, a shaken Violet turns to Robert, who’s not dressed properly for dinner. “You think I might have a drink?” she says. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I thought you were a waiter.”

Mary’s men: She and new husband Matthew return from honeymoon in the south of France. As it’s now the 1920s, Mary’s styling is changing – she’s got a very fetching, wavy-but-short haircut. But Matthew is still determined to turn down the money he’s entitled to from his late fiancée’s father’s will.

Doggie! Isis sits attentively and being stroked as Robert has a cigar with Matthew.

Review: As well as the plot to save Downton Abbey for the family – and Mrs Hughes having a cancer scare – romance is a theme of this episode. Sir Anthony and Edith’s relationship keeps flickering, for example. He feels guilty that he’s about 30 years older than her, and has a lame arm, so he and Robert agree that he’ll discreetly back away from the courtship. However, Edith refuses to let him go – and by the end of the episode they actually plan to get wed. It’s very sweet.

Next episode…

The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973, Alan Gibson)


An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: London and the surrounding area. We’re told that the events of Dracula A.D. 1972, of which this is a sequel, were ‘over two years ago’. The climax takes place very close to 23 November, which is said to be the sabbath of the undead.

Faithful to the novel? This was Hammer’s eighth Dracula film in 15 years, so the book is now a dim and distant memory… A secret agent escapes from a country house where some prominent members of society have been taking part in strange rituals. His bosses Peter Torrence (William Franklyn) and Colonel Matthews (Richard Vernon) then recruit a policeman called Murray (Michael Coles) to investigate the cult further. He in turn ropes in occult expert Lorrimer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), who lives with his granddaughter Jessica (Joanna Lumley). (Murray, Lorrimer and Jessica are returning characters from Dracula AD 1972, though the latter role has been recast.) Lorrimer realises that one of the cultists is an old friend and this eventually leads him to a businessman called DD Denham, whose shiny new office building was built on the site of the church from the previous film. Guess what: Denham is actually a resurrected Count Dracula (Christopher Lee, playing the vampire in a Hammer film for the seventh and final time)! He’s planning an apocalypse, using his own ‘four horsemen’ to distribute the bubonic plague. After a lengthy sequence at the country house – in which various female vampires meet their end – Lorrimer lures the Count into a hawthorn bush (go, biblical subtext!) and stakes him through the heart.

Best performance: Peter Cushing, who was always able to make hokum watchable.

Best bit: When the team first investigate the house, Jessica sneaks into the cellar, which is full of coffins. Then she finds Torrence’s secretary Jane (Valerie Van Ost) chained to a wall. We’d earlier seen her kidnapped by the cult and turned by Count Dracula. At first, Jess thinks Jane is dead – but we viewers know otherwise. Jessica creeps closer, feels for a pulse, and Jane turns to look at her. She smiles… then lunges with her fangs. Then other female vamps start to emerge from the coffins and close in…

Review: This starts out well. A Satanic cult are carrying out bizarre ceremonies in an English country house, while the British Secret Service are getting worried about it in their modern, brightly lit offices. It has the feel of an episode of, say, The Avengers or Doctor Who. (Incidentally, Don Houghton had recently worked on the latter when he wrote this film. Perhaps choosing 23 November as the plot’s key date was an in-joke: it’s the day Doctor Who began in 1963.). And the storytelling is often fun, with information being drip-feed during different scenes. However, the longer the film goes on the more it drags and the less it entertains. Few of the characters have much spark or life to them, especially Joanna Lumley’s Jessica, who’s a noticeably blander, older and less fun version of the character we saw in the preceding film.

Five Afghan coats out of 10

My 15 favourite hour-long episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot


Yeah, I know they’re technically about 50 minutes when you lose the adverts. But having once listed my favourite feature-length episodes of ITV’s Poirot series, I thought I’d mop up the best of the rest.

* Murder in the Mews (15 January 1989) – this early episode has a neat twist and also demonstrates how the show embellished some often thin short stories when adapting them for TV.

* The Third Floor Flat (5 February 1989) – Josie Lawrence pops up in an episode set mainly in Poirot’s block of flats.

* Problem At Sea (19 February 1989) – one of the earliest Poirot-on-holiday stories, and the first episode where I worked out who did it (I was nine years old and very smug).

* The King of Clubs (12 March 1989) – especially in its early series, the show often used its 1930s setting to provide colour and flavour. This episode, for example, centres on the British film industry.

* The Dream (19 March 1989) – Agatha Christie’s plotting sometimes relies on you not being able to *see* the events and that obviously presents a problem for television. This episode has an ingenious solution.

* The Veiled Lady (14 January 1990) – in this light, frothy episode, Poirot dresses up as a workman so he can burgle a house.

* The Lost Mine (21 January 1990) – a slight mystery, but a stylish episode that uses London’s Chinatown as a backdrop.

* The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim (4 February 1990) – there’s a sticks-out-like-a-sore-thumb twist, but also lots of comedy. Poirot learns some magic tricks, has to look after a parrot, and sends Hastings out to investigate on his behalf. The episode was written by David Renwick (One Foot in the Grave, Jonathan Creek, Love Soup).

* How Does Your Garden Grow? (6 January 1991) – a nice, well-written mystery with some lovely subplots and a comedic conclusion.

* Wasps’ Nest (27 January 1991) – Peter Capaldi guest stars in a dark yet bucolic mystery story.

* The Mystery of the Spanish Chest (17 February 1991) – a nasty whodunit with stylish flashbacks.

* The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge (10 March 1991) – the script contains a superb sleight of hand, which plays tricks with the drama convention that characters always tell the truth about certain things.

* The Chocolate Box (21 February 1993) – a flashback episode to when Poirot was a copper in pre-war Belgium. Oddly, everyone has an English accent… except Poirot.

* Dead Man’s Mirror (28 February 1993) – a cracking mystery set in a country house with a limited cast of suspects (ie, the definitive Agatha setting).

* Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (7 March 1993) – Poirot and Hastings visit the seaside in the last ever ‘hour-long’ episode. A valuable necklace is stolen and I claim my five guineas.

Downton Abbey: series 3 episode 1


SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Brian Percival. Originally broadcast: 16 September 2012, ITV.

As Mary and Matthew prepare for their wedding, Anna is still trying to prove her husband’s innocence. Also, Robert learns that the family finances are in dire straits, Sybil and Tom return to Downton, and Cora’s mother comes to visit…

When is it set? Spring 1920. Cora’s mother arrives in the country on the 15th of the month.

Where is it set? The village. The local church. The house. The dowager house. The prison. London, specifically Chancery Lane. Isabel’s house.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Alfred (Matt Milne) gets a job at Downton thanks to his auntie, Miss O’Brien. Carson thinks he’s too tall to be a footman and doesn’t like that he used to be a waiter in a hotel. He’s essentially William’s replacement in the line-up, even though William left about five years ago.
* A childhood pal of Sybil’s called Larry Grey (Charlie Anson) comes to dinner. He’s a total twat who bullies Tom and spikes his drink.
* Larry’s father, Lord Merton (Douglas Reith), also attends the dinner and is aghast at his son’s behaviour.
* Bates has a new cellmate called Craig (Jason Furnival). He’s a cynic who rubs Bates up the wrong way.
* Cora’s caustic and confident mother, Mrs Levinson (Shirley MacLaine), arrives from America. She doesn’t actually show up until the 43-minute mark.
* Mrs Levenson’s maid is a fusspot called Reed (Lucinda Sharp).

Best bits:
* Sir Anthony Strallan pops up again. Not only is his guarded flirting with Edith very sweet, but actor Robert Bathurst lifts the character off the page.
* Also good to see Mr Molesley getting more screentime. He’s worried what will happen to his job after Matthew marries. Matthew doesn’t intend to take Molesley with him to the big house…
* Sybil and Branson return to the country for the first time since they left to get married – Cora nervously calls her new son-in-law ‘Tom’, while Carson is not happy having a former servant as a guest. Yay for Isobel, though, who defends him at the dinner table when the others are criticising him for not having the right clothes. In another nice touch, Matthew and Branson make a friendly connection: not only are they going to be brothers-in-law, but they both started as outsiders. Matthew even asks Tom to be his best man (bit unbelievable, this).
* On the morning of Mary’s wedding, Cora asks her daughter if there’s anything she needs to know – ie, about sex. Mary rightly points out that she knows more about it than Cora had on *her* wedding day.

Worst bits:
* We get some more of the perfunctory plotting that Downton Abbey enjoys so much. First we learn that the lion’s share of Cora’s fortune is lost after Robert made a bad investment. Then, in a separate scene, Matthew is stunned to find out that he might inherit a huge amount of money from his late fiancée’s father. Can you guess where this storyline is heading?

Real history:
* Anna makes passing reference to the king, George V (1865-1936).
* Mary says Mr Carson’s motto is “be prepared”. Violet tells her that Baden Powell has stolen it. Former army officer Robert Baden-Powell (1857-1941) formed the Boy Scouts Association and the Girl Guides.
* Isobel asks Tom Branson what he thinks of “new Act”. The Government of Ireland Act was then making its way through the British Parliament. It proposed to divide Ireland into two subdivisions: Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland. The plan at this point was for both to remain within the UK, but the latter formed an independent country in 1922.

Upstairs, Downton: The daughter figures of the Upstairs, Downstairs household got grand weddings in the episodes For Love of Love (1972) and Whither Shall I Wander? (1975).

Maggie Smithism of the week: She asks new footman Alfred, “Are you really that tall?”

Mary’s men: She’s preparing to marry Matthew and is happy – until she finds out that a) Downton’s capital has been lost, and b) Matthew won’t rescue the estate by accepting the cash from his late fiancée’s father’s will. For a while it seems the wedding might be off, but then the couple have a late-chat night and make up with a kiss. The episode ends with the wedding ceremony. Mary looks scrumptious.

Review: Yes, they really did cast Shirley MacLaine as Cora’s mother: a sure-fire sign that Downton Abbey was, by this point, a global hit.

Next episode…

Dracula: The Impaler (2013, Derek Hockenburgh)


An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: The modern day, plus a few flashbacks to the 15th century. We start somewhere in America, then the main bulk of the story is in Transylvania – specifically at Vlad the Impaler’s castle.

Faithful to the novel? This low-budget, straight-to-DVD movie starts with seven friends celebrating the end of high school with a pool party and beer pong. They’re all off to college soon, so decide to go on a holiday beforehand. Based on a dream had by rich kid Adam (Christian Gehring), they decide to visit Vlad Tepes’s castle in Transylvania. They’ve all heard of the fictional Count Dracula, who was based on Vlad, because Bram Stoker’s book exists in this fiction. At the castle, they meet a young woman called Veronica (Diana Busuioc). She plays host and tells them about Vlad (Gregory Lee Kenyon), who in 1476 or so accepted being an immortal vampire as a trade-off for his love Elisabet being spared death. The film soon becomes a slasher-flick: the fat friend (Mark Jacobson) is attacked by weird baldy men caked in mud, the phone-obsessed friend (Rocco Nugent) is impaled, and the blonde friend (Christina Collard) is torn to pieces by Dracula’s Brides-types who appear in that one scene. At the climax, as one survivor is tortured by another, we start to question whether what we’ve seen took place the way we saw it…

Best performance: In tone and performance, the sexy Veronica is not a million miles away from the Red Woman in Game of Thrones. She’s played by one of the movie’s writers, who’s also the wife of the director.

Best bit: When the survivors find two of their friends dead, their reaction is one of violent distress. One character even retches. It’s a nice bit of genuine emotion, which lifts the film above the Scooby-Doo surroundings.

Review: This is a poor film with plenty of blemishes: the cast is variable, the story is muddied, scenes set at night are lit by floodlights, unwanted shadows appear on people’s faces, a scene set on a moving train is filmed with a rock-solid camera and actors sitting stock still… But there are a few things in its favour. For a start, the gang of friends do actually feel like real pals. They swear at each other, have in-jokes and take the piss, which helps set them up for when they go through the various traumas. The script also contains a couple of funny scene transitions and there’s some trippy editing. It’s barely a vampire film, barely a Dracula film, but it passes the time well enough.

Six promise rings out of 10

Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968, Freddie Francis)


An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: A prologue is set in 1905, then the bulk of the film takes place a year later. The location is Hammer’s default, mid-European fantasyland. A lot of the story takes place in a village called Keinenberg.

Faithful to the novel? This is the fourth entry in Hammer Films’ Dracula series. At the start, Count Dracula is terrorising a village, but we then cut to a year later – ie, after the events of Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966). The count is dead but the villagers still fear him – so a visiting monsignor called Ernest Mueller (Rupert Davies) attempts to exorcise the abandoned castle. However, during the ceremony the local priest (Ewan Hooper) accidentally resurrects the vampire (d’oh!) when his blood drips into the vampire’s icy-moat grave. (During this scene, Dracula sees his own reflection in the water.) Unaware of any trouble, Mueller returns home. Dracula (Christopher Lee) follows, wanting revenge for what’s happened to his castle, and targets Mueller’s niece Maria (Veronica Carlson). Maria’s mother (Marion Mathie) and fun-loving boyfriend (Barry Andrews) get caught up in the mayhem, as does local barmaid Zena (Barbara Ewing).

Best performance: Barbara Ewing as the flirty Zena.

Best bit: The prologue shows a young man discovering a corpse in the church: a woman hanging upside down in the bell tower.

Review: This film is hamstrung by all the usual Hammer limitations: the cast is tiny, we get very used to the same few sets, the locations are generic, and there’s some risible day-for-night shooting. But in a couple of ways it’s an interesting entry in the series. The nominal hero of the story, Paul, is an atheist. Admittedly, this detail doesn’t really go anywhere, but it’s a nice change from the norm. And Freddie Francis (an Oscar-winning cinematographer as well as this film’s director) uses coloured filters on the edges of shots associated with Dracula. This gives them a strange, stained-glass-window quality, which is both unusual and effective.

Five rooftops out of 10

Downton Abbey: Christmas at Downton Abbey


SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Brian Percival. Originally broadcast: 25 December 2011, ITV.

As the household celebrates Christmas, Downton plays host to various guests for a shooting party. Also, Robert learns a huge family secret, Mary reaches a crossroads, while Mr Bates stands trial for murder.

When is it set? The episode begins on Thursday 25 December 1919 and progresses into the early weeks of 1920.

Where is it set? The house. Violet’s house. The prison where Mr Bates is being held. The estate. Sir Anthony’s house. A courtroom in York. Downton’s churchyard. Mr Mason’s farm.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Lady Rosamund comes to stay for Christmas and brings her maid, Shore (Sharon Small), who is sniffy and haughty.
* Mr Swire, the unseen father of Matthew’s late fiancée, is ill and not expected to live long. So Matthew has to leave the festive celebrations to visit him before he dies.
* Sir Anthony Strallan pops up again. He’s lost the use of his right arm in the war, but is still sweet on Edith. She makes a move, visiting him and asking him out for a drive, but he nobly turns her down. He says he’s too old and a cripple. “If you think I’m going to give up on someone who calls me lovely….” she says. “You must,” he replies.
* We’re told that, since the last episode, Sybil and Tom Branson have got married and are now living in Ireland. Of the family, only Mary and Edith went to the service. Now Sybil writes to her mother to reveal that she’s pregnant.
* Lord Hepworth (Nigel Havers) is the son of an old friend of Violet’s. He also comes to visit the house and is soon flirting with Lady Rosamund. Everyone assumes he’s a gold-digger… then Anna catches him doing the dirty with Lady R’s maid.

Best bits:
* It’s Christmas!
* Mrs Hughes is dismissive of the other servants playing with a Ouija board. Daisy asks, “Don’t you believe in spirits, then?” Mrs H replies: “I don’t believe they play board games!”
* Robert laments that he’s going to have a Fenian grandchild. “Cheer up,” jokes Cora. “Come the revolution it may be useful to have a contact on the other side.”
* Cora finally tells Robert what really happened the night Mr Pamuk died (a death that took place seven years previously). A little while later, Robert reveals that he knows to Mary. The resulting conversation – Mary admitting that she’s marrying Sir Richard because otherwise he’ll ruin her, Robert telling her to break it off anyway – is one of the show’s best tear-jerking scenes.
* The social awkwardness of the annual servants’ ball: Matthew dancing with Miss O’Brien, Thomas with the dowager, etc.
* At night, as the snow falls, Matthew and Mary take in some fresh air… and Matthew pops the questions. Hurrah!

Worst bits:
* It’s been eight months since the previous episode. And not one of the plots has moved on. Then Mr Bates’s entire murder trial is dramatised in around six minutes.
* Sir Richard asks, not unreasonably, how the family solicitor has managed to arrange for the trial to be held in York. After all, the murder took place in London. “I don’t know,” says Robert. “But thank God he has.”

Real history:
* After Bates is sentenced to death, Anna is told to write a letter to the Home Secretary. “He’s a Liberal, isn’t he?” says Robert. “Pity.” Edward Shortt (1862-1935) had been in the post since January 1919. (The letter works, by the way. The sentence is reduced to life imprisonment.)

Upstairs, Downton: Christmas was celebrated in Upstairs, Downstairs in the 1973 episode Goodwill to All Men. Updown characters dabble with a séance in A Voice From the Past (1972).

Maggie Smithism of the week: After Sir Richard is dumped by Mary and revealed to be a twat, he says goodbye to Violet. “I doubt we’ll meet again,” he says. She replies, “Do you promise?”

Mary’s men: As the episode begins, she’s still with Sir Richard but getting increasingly bored of his boorish attitudes. Her father and Matthew urge Mary to dump him and both men also find out about Mr Pamuk, but neither cares: scandal is better than a lifetime of unhappiness, they say. When Mary does tell Sir Richard the wedding’s off, he doesn’t respond well and gets into a brawl with Matthew. “I presume you’ll be leaving in the morning,” deadpans Robert.

Doggie! Isis barks her enjoyment as the family play ‘the game’ (not charades, as the Dowager points out). Later, Robert is worried when his pooch goes missing – she’s actually been dognapped by Thomas, who plans to ‘find’ her and claim the credit. He locks her in a shed overnight while Robert offers a £10 reward for her safe return (that’s something like £400 in today’s money). But the dog has vanished when Thomas goes to collect her. It turns out a child found her, returned her, and claimed the cash.

Review: Downton Abbey’s first Christmas episode is a feature-length special with no title sequence. A couple of the ongoing storylines have been parked – Sybil and Branson don’t appear, for example – but there’s still plenty to enjoy. The big headline plot is Mary and Matthew’s on/off romance, which now reaches a new height. Mr Bates also gets a huge storyline, but he’s mostly off-screen with wife Anna carrying the emotional weight. Elsewhere, Nigel Havers is a fun if underused guest star.

Next episode…

Van Helsing: The London Assignment (2004, Sharon Bridgeman)

Screenshot 2017-03-21 18.10.05

An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: This 30-minute animated special was produced to promote the 2004 movie Van Helsing and dramatises the events immediately before that film’s main storyline. The DVD packaging says it’s set in 1889, a date that’s confirmed by Queen Victoria being 70 years old, even though the parent movie takes place in 1888. The locations are London and the Vatican City.

Faithful to the novel? It’s a new storyline. Dr Jekyll (Dwight Schultz) is the Queen’s personal physician, yet has been secretly turning into a monster called Hyde (Robbie Coltrane), killing women, and bottling their dying breaths. Vatican monster-hunter Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) and his sidekick Carl (David Wenham) are sent to combat him. Turns out, Dr J has been in love with Queen Victoria since she was a young woman and wants to return her to her former beauty and marry her.

Best performance: Give them their due, the producers convinced Hugh Jackman, David Wenham and Robbie Coltrane to reprise their movie roles.

Best bit: The film begins with a 1930s Universal logo. Nice touch.

Review: Various Victorian clichés have been thrown into the mix: as well as Van Helsing himself, we get fog-bound London streets, the chimes of Big Ben, a version of Jack the Ripper (though that name is never used), the Jekyll and Hyde story, the London Underground, beefeaters and Queen Vicky herself. The animation’s stylish, but the story’s slight.

Five proper-sized corsets out of 10

Doctor Strange (2016, Scott Derrickson)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

After neurosurgeon Dr Stephen Strange is badly injured in a car crash, he loses the full use of his hands. Feeling that Western medicine has failed him, he seeks guidance from the Ancient One, an expert in mystic arts….

The lead character of this film is an arrogant, rich genius with a goatie beard who’s played by Sherlock Holmes. His demeanour is marked by lots of sarcasm and showing off, but he then suffers a trauma that makes him question his place in the world. After a period of training and experimentation, he decides to dress up and fight evil…

While Doctor Strange is not exactly a remake of 2008’s Iron Man, the similarities are remarkable. One huge difference, however, is that this movie turns its back on the plausible science of Tony Stark’s world. In its place comes full-on weirdness. At the start of the story, Dr Stephen Strange (a reliable Benedict Cumberbatch) is working in a New York hospital. He’s good at his job, swaps banter with his colleagues, and flirts with ex-girlfriend Christine Palmer (an underused Rachel McAdams, who was coincidentally in Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock movies). It’s a thoroughly modern feel, full of ER procedures, pop-culture references and even a long walk-and-talk shot in a corridor.

But Strange’s life turns upside down when his hands, so vital to his work, are badly damaged in an accident. (Eagle-eyed viewers – and people looking for things to mention in blog posts – will spot a ‘hand’ motif in this film. There are many close-ups of hands, lots of actors use hand gestures, and at one point Stephen even hallucinates about hands growing out of hands growing out of hands.) Desolate and depressed, scientific Stephen surprises himself by seeking help from mystics in Katmandu.

At their mountain retreat, he meets the explains-everything-earnestly Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the never-cracks-a-smile Wong (Benedict Wong) and their boss, the not-Asian-like-in-the-comics Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Strange begins to learn about astral planes and mirror dimensions and shaping reality and sacred texts and time loops and sling rings and sorcerers of antiquities and Eyes of Agamotto and planet-defending ‘Sanctums’ in New York, London and Hong Kong. It’s a daunting assault of mumbo-jumbo, for both Stephen and the viewer. At one point during his training, Strange is passed a piece of paper with the word ‘shamballa’ on it. He reasonably asks if it’s a mantra, but Mordo replies that it’s the wi-fi password. A good gag, sure, but a bit sniffy considering how much mysticism Stephen has recently been exposed to.

In fact, Mordo is generally a bit annoying: his only role in the story is to have a grave enough expression on his face that we’ll accept what he’s saying as important. Librarian Wong is more fun, and there’s a likable run of gags between him and Strange. Meanwhile, the Ancient One is a very powerful Celtic mystic/wizard/priest type who can harness energy, cast spells and control time and space. Swinton is good value, but her casting drew accusations of Hollywood whitewashing. (Arguing that sticking to the comic book’s vision of a male Asian teacher would be too close to a Fu Manchu cliché, director Scott Derrickson conceded that casting a white actress still wasn’t ideal. “What I did was the lesser of two evils,” he said, “but it is still an evil.”)

Strange learns from her quickly and soon uses a magical portal to travel to New York, where he defeats Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former pupil of the Ancient One who wants to summon an interdimensional entity called Dormammu. (Are you keeping up with all this? I had to take notes.) Our hero gets help from a self-aware cloak that floats around of its own volition like it’s Orko from the He-Man cartoon. Quite why this cloth-with-personality does this is not entirely clear – unless you’ve read the comics, one suspects – but then again not a lot is entirely clear with this film. It’s a world far removed from logic and reason and science. This may be a deliberate contrast with the medical jargon and Manhattan lofts of Stephen’s earlier life, but you get the sense that the script is using it as an excuse not to justify things properly.

Compare with Star Wars, in which Ben Kenobi has one line about the Force – “It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together” – and we all get it instantly. Doctor Strange, however, bombards us with made-up rituals and silly names. It’s difficult to understand (or care) about what’s happening. After the Ancient One is killed, for example, Strange and Mordo chase Kaecilius to Hong Kong. He’s destroying its Sanctum because he wants… um, Dormammu to take over? Is that right?

Admittedly, this action climax has a fun twist on the usual superhero formula. We still get Marvel’s obsession with urban carnage, but Stephen and Mordo actually turn up too late. The area has *already* been levelled by Kaecilius. So Stephen rewinds time to put everything back the way it was: a fun, visually interesting idea. Conversely, while the film’s earlier action/fight scenes play in real time, they do plenty of peculiar things with space: city streets bend beneath characters’ feet, architecture melds and changes before their eyes. It’s all very impressive (unless you’ve seen the Christopher Nolan film Inception), as are the psychedelic sequences when Stephen uses his new powers. But overall this is a simplistic movie that’s been made superficially complicated by lots of empty razzmatazz.

Six men on a bus out of 10

Screenshot 2017-04-06 14.58.23

Downton Abbey: series 2 episode 8

Episode 8 Season 2 1

SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by James Strong. Originally broadcast: 6 November 2011, ITV.

As everyone prepares for Matthew and Lavinia’s wedding, Sybil and Branson reveal their shock plans to live together in Dublin. Also, Ethel receives an awful offer, Robert is indiscreet with a maid, and various members of the household succumb to Spanish flu…

When is it set? April 1919.

Where is it set? The house. The Grantham Arms (the local pub where Branson is now living). Ripon Register Office. Downton’s churchyard.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Lavinia is just one of many people struck by Spanish flu. It’s on the eve of her wedding to Matthew, which has to be cancelled. She then tells her fiancé that she saw him kissing Mary. She wasn’t surprised and attempts to let him free of his commitment. She later dies…
* Anna and Mr Bates get married. Only Mary knows so far – and as a wedding present she arranges for the newly-weds to secretly spend the night in a guest bedroom. (There must be a joke in here somewhere about John no longer being Master Bates or something.)
* Jane hands in her notice, because it’s clear that she and Robert wouldn’t be able to resist crossing a line. They share a goodbye kiss.
* Two coppers show up and arrest Bates for the murder of his estranged wife, Vera.

Best bits:
* Cora’s wide-eyed shock when Sybil reveals she’s going to marry the chauffeur.
* Robert and Cora disagree over how to deal with Sybil. She’s more lenient so he says, “If you’re turning American on me I’ll go downstairs.”
* Various people fall ill, including Mr Molesley. Everyone has Spanish flu… except, it turns out, Mr M. He’s simply drunk after testing the wines for the family’s meal.
* Anna tells Bates they’re getting married. He says they can’t, given that his wife has just died and he might be a murder suspect. But she insists. “If we have to face this, we will face it as husband and wife.” Aww.
* Miss O’Brien is genuinely distraught that Cora is seriously ill. She tends to her and even comes close to confessing that she was responsible for Cora once losing a baby…

Worst bits:
* A couple of episodes ago, Matthew was diagnosed as being permanently paralysed. Now he can cope with just a walking stick. He even has a dance with Mary.
* Robert insults Branson by offering him cash to abandon Sybil. He then tells the Irishman to leave the village. “Do you really want me to leave now,” replies Branson, “when I shall take her with me that same hour?” Who talks like this?!
* Even in a post-coital embrace, Anna is still calling her husband ‘Mr Bates’.

Real history:
* A gramophone is installed in Downton’s hallway. Matthew plays a recording of Look For the Silver Lining, a song written by Jerome Kern and BG DeSylva. He says it’s from a musical that flopped: Zip! Goes a Million (1919), which was based on the 1902 novel Brewster’s Millions and only lasted two performances. (The recording, by the way, is an anachronism. It wasn’t made until 29 December 1920.)
* Spanish flu, which was mentioned last episode, strikes the house. Big time.

Upstairs, Downton: Spanish flu caused devastation at 165 Eaton Place in the 1974 Upstairs, Downstairs episode Peace Out of Pain.

Maggie Smithism of the week: “Don’t be defeatist, dear,” Violet tells granddaughter Edith. “It’s very middle class.”

Mary’s men: With Lavinia ill in bed, Mary and Matthew share a moment – they quietly dance together, regret that things didn’t work out between them, and share a kiss. Later, Sir Richard shows up unexpectedly – and Mary soon rumbles why. If Lavinia dies, he wants to stop Matthew turning to Mary for comfort. As it turns out, after Lavinia pops her clogs Matthew is so guilty he tells Mary they could never be together…

Review: A longer-than-usual episode to conclude the show’s second series. The Russian-roulette plotting of which character will succumb to the flu is engaging. For the longest time it seems like Cora will be the one to die – then Lavinia takes a sudden turn for the worse.

Next episode…