The Wicker Tree (2011, Robin Hardy)

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SPOILER WARNING: These reviews reveal plot twists!

Two young Americans travel to Scotland intent on spreading the word of Jesus. However, they soon fall in with the residents of a strange town…

How to classify this? Is it a sequel to the 1973 film The Wicker Man? Well, a case could be made for that. Christopher Lee has a tiny cameo, possibly as Lord Summerisle, so perhaps this is The Wicker Man: The Next Generation. Or is it a remake? It’s certainly a very similar storyline – the same kind of things happen to the same kind of people. Perhaps we should consider it a companion piece: another take on the same ideas. It’s also an adaptation of director Robin Hardy’s novel Cowboys for Christ (which itself was based on an earlier version of the film script after an attempt at making it fell through). But however we define it, The Wicker Tree is a truly mediocre movie.

It tells the story of American couple Beth Boothby (Brittania Nicol) and Steve Thompson (Henry Garrett). She’s a successful country-and-western singer; he’s her boyfriend. They’re both young, clean-cut, devout Christians who are waiting until they marry before having sex. Beth is also turning her back on her singing career to spend two years “bringing God’s message to the lost people of Scotland.” That’s right: two aw-shucks Americans are coming to do missionary work on the council estates of Glasgow. Not too surprisingly, they just get doors slammed in their faces.

At their lowest ebb, Beth and Steve then meet local landowners Sir Lachlan (Graham McTavish) and Delia Morrison (Jacqueline Leonard). The Morrisons clearly have nefarious plans, and also tease the couple about their faith, pointing out contradictions and belittling Jesus. But despite this, Beth and Steve accept their hospitality. Meanwhile, we viewers learn that Sir Lachlan runs the local nuclear power plant. (Of course he does.) There was an accident there a decade earlier and now the whole village is infertile.

A huge problem with this story is that – unlike Beth and Steve’s equivalent in The Wicker Man, Sgt Howie – the two lead characters are just so dim. The script does them no favours, presenting them as dippy, childlike, naïve characters who you never feel any sympathy for, but the performances are nothing to write home to Texas about either. The Scottish characters are also burdened with bizarre, antiquated attitudes towards Americans, as if they’re a newly discovered race of people and not the globe’s most dominant culture.

Another issue is the old-fashioned-ness of the plot. Is it really plausible that a town on the Scottish Borders in 2011 could be entirely infertile and yet no one else has noticed? This isn’t an isolated island community like in The Wicker Man. There’s probably a Little Chef just round the corner. At least someone has spotted the town’s paganism: a copper called Orlando has been sent to the area to do some rooting around. But he gets distracted by a local woman called Lolly (Honeysuckle Weeks, using a Scottish accent that needs subtitling at one point) who has sex with him multiple times to wear him out.

Anyway, various weird things happen to Beth and Steve. He’s spooked when a middle-aged woman sings a suggestive song in the pub; she’s nearly drugged by the Morrisons’ butler. We also get Christopher Lee green-screened into a 72-second flashback that tries to explain why Sir Lachlan is practising paganism. (Lee was originally going to play Lachlan, with Joan Collins as his wife, but then injured himself on the set of another film and had to drop out.)

When Beth learns that Steve’s been unfaithful – he couldn’t resist himself after seeing Lolly naked in a river – she ain’t happy. But worse is to come once we hit May Day. Steve is lured to a remote castle and then… torn to pieces and eaten by the townsfolk, who are now apparently cannibals. Meanwhile, Beth has been tricked into being the May Queen for the festivities and is lured towards a giant wicker tree. Lachlan plans to sacrifice her to the gods, hoping it will cure the community of its infertility. But when she figures out what’s going on, Beth pushes him into the tree and sets it on fire – perhaps the film’s one genuinely smart surprise. (Her victory doesn’t last long. She’s soon caught and killed by the locals, who are all dressed like post-apocalyptic zombies for some reason.)

This movie beggars belief. The dialogue is mostly either just laughable or ear-scrappingly off-key. The tone shifts all over the place, from po-faced philosophy to high comedy. The acting is extremely variable, ranging from doing-their-best (McTavish, Leonard, Clive Russell) to actually-not-good-enough. Some crummy visual effects and that’ll-do cinematography only add to the feeling that the film was made with precisely zero passion behind it. It’s an awful piece of work.

One stuffed cat out of 10

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The Wicker Man (2006, Neil LaBute)

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SPOILER WARNING: These reviews reveal plot twists! Also, this review is based on the director’s cut of the film, which differs slightly from the theatrical release.

Californian motorcycle cop Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage) travels to the remote island of Summersisle after his ex-girlfriend writes to say that her daughter, Rowan, has gone missing. But when he arrives he uncovers many shocking secrets…

Seen on its own merits, this remake of 1973’s The Wicker Man is a watchable bit of hokum – it passes the time well enough without ever impressing you. However, when compared to the original, it’s a near-disaster. The changes to the story make little sense, the director opts for the obvious all too often, and Nicolas Cage’s performance includes at least two scenes where his OTT tendencies become laughable.

While broadly the same plotline as the 1973 original, there are a number of differences. The story has been shifted to the autumnal north-west of America, for example, while the lead character now has a prior personal connection to the island. Edward Malus is also a very different man from Sgt Neil Howie. Malus is not a devout Christian so he’s just dismissive of the island’s bizarre religion, rather than offended by it. This is a big change that has a huge, negative impact. Stripped of its religious satire – these villagers practise some vague, made-up beliefs based around bees rather than the historically resonant paganism of the original film – the plot becomes much more conventional. This is simply a straight-ahead horror film about a ‘normal’ man trapped with weird people doing weird things.

Not that Edward Malus is totally normal – how could he be while played by Nicolas Cage? But the character is lighter than Sgt Howie and Cage handles the gags and general bemusement well. He also gets a new bit of backstory: before heading to the island to help a missing girl and her mother, he fails to save a different girl and her mother from a burning car. (The burning, of course, also foreshadows the film’s ending.) This creates huge guilt on his part, driving his obsession to travel to the island on his own dime when his police colleagues seem less than interested. It’s such a shame that writer/director Neil LaBute feels the need to ‘spookify’ this plot point up, though. After the accident, Malus is told that no bodies were found in the car and the cops can’t find out who the woman and child were. This is representative of the movie’s biggest problem. It wants to replace the original’s subtly with on-the-nose horror clichés.

The islanders, for example, are much less interesting than the Hebrideans in 1973. Those people were terrifying because, well, they were so nice. But here we get openly hostile and provocative women – including twins talking in unison – who dress in old-fashioned, Amish-type clothes. The characters have no depth or ambiguity to them: they’re just creepy, end of story. Incidentally, there *are* men on the island but none of them speaks or has any power. It’s a big bee metaphor, you see. The island industry is honey, so there are plenty of illusions to bees in the dialogue and production design; the community’s leader, Sister Summersilse (Ellen Burstyn from The Exorcist), is the queen and everyone else constitutes her workers. But the more the bees feature in the story, the sillier everything becomes.

In fact, the weirdest shit happens after the allergic-to-bees Malus has been stung, making you momentarily question whether he’s hallucinating everything. Then, while the islanders prepare for some sort of fertility ritual, he disguises himself in a bear costume and starts punching women in the face. As in 1973, we then get the big reveal: the girl’s disappearance was staged in order to lure Malus to the island so he could be sacrificed to the gods. Rowan herself (who, by the way, turned out to be Malus’s daughter) and her mother were in on it, though in a nice bit of shading the mother (a vacant Kate Beahan) seems guilty about her involvement.

Cage goes off the deep end now, especially once the villagers cover his head with a wicker basket and fill it with bees. It’s an acting style with one foot in reality and the other on the fucking moon. The villagers also break his legs, then haul him up into an enormous wicker-man edifice and set fire to it.

But it’s very difficult to take any of this seriously; there’s no dread, no terror involved. In a cruel twist it’s young Rowan who lights the flame. But rather than feeling for Malus, you’re just grateful that it’s all over. (In the version of the film released in cinemas, it wasn’t. Viewers got an unnecessary coda scene set months later. Two of the island’s women are in a city bar, picking up two innocent blokes – one of whom is played by James Franco. The cycle continues, you see.)

Five cameos from Aaron Eckhart out of 10

The Wicker Man: The Different Cuts

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SPOILER WARNING: These reviews reveal plot twists!

The version of The Wicker Man that came out in 1973 was not what the director intended. Around 12 minutes of footage had been removed from Robin Hardy’s movie on the orders of his superiors at production company British Lion. They feared that it was too difficult a film for a general audience and also wanted a shorter cut that could be released as a B-movie. Running at 87 minutes, The Wicker Man was first released as the support for Don’t Look Now in December.

Then, in 1976, Hardy decided to release his original version in America. But there was controversy when it became apparent that his 99-minute cut had been junked, as had all 368 cans of the raw footage from the late-1972 shoot. Some people, including the movie’s star Christopher Lee, saw this as a deliberate, petulant ploy on the part of British Lion. Less paranoid people concluded that the footage has simply been misplaced. (Archiving the rushes and assembly edits from an unsuccessful horror film was not standard practice in the 1970s.)

It was then recalled that a print of the longer version had been sent to independent film producer Roger Corman in LA when he’d been asked for advice on how to market the movie. Being a film geek, Corman had kept his copy – so it was now used for the basis of a rerelease in 1977. (Ironically, Hardy took the opportunity to take out a few scenes.)

I’ve already reviewed the 1973 version of The Wicker Man, so this is a look at the extra footage that’s contained in the original director’s cut. It’s not an extensive list of every difference; just a discussion of the interesting ones. Some of these moments were trimmed out for the 1977 release, but all three versions are now available on DVD/Blu-ray.

* Because any scenes that were cut out in 1973 are taken from Corman’s viewing print, the picture quality is not as strong.
* As originally released in 1973, The Wicker Man begins with policeman Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) arriving on the island of Summerisle. In the earlier director’s cut, however, that arrival is preceded by six minutes of storytelling… On the mainland, Howie chats to a colleague called McTaggart (John Hallam) and walks past some graffiti on a wall that reads ‘Jesus saves’. Howie agrees with the sentiment but still wants it removed. McTaggart then gently ridicules his superior after Howie asks how things are in the town: “Just the usual,” he replies. “Rape, sodomy, sacrilege.”
* Next, we see Howie attending and speaking at a church service (some footage of which was used in the theatrical cut as brief flashbacks). We get a closer look at his fiancée, Mary (Alison Hughes), while the minister is played by director Robin Hardy in a Hitchcock-style cameo.
* In the next scene, a postman (Tony Roper) delivers a letter to the police station and shares a joke with McTaggart about the uptight, prudish Howie. “Ah, poor old Mary,” says the postman. “When those two are married, she’ll spend more time on her knees in church than on her back in bed!” Howie then walks in on them laughing. The letter, of course, is the one telling Howie about the missing Rowan Morrison. He says he’ll visit the island of Summerisle and will be away overnight.
* We then cut to him flying to the island in his seaplane – ie, the opening scene of the theatrical version.
* The film’s first in-story song, The Landlord’s Daughter, has an extra verse in the longer cut. During it, the landlord (Lindsay Kemp) bangs the optics with a pair of spoons and we get a look at the musicians.
* Later in the same scene, after the landlord says that last year’s harvest-festival photo is missing because the frame broke, there’s an extra shot of him looking meaningfully at the space on the wall.
* A major bit of restructuring occurs now. In the longer cut of the film, Willow (Britt Ekland) doesn’t sing her sexy song at this point in the story. Instead, we see the musicians in the pub (including the film’s composer) singing a gentle, sensual folk song. Outside, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) appears under Willow’s bedroom window and introduces her to a boy called Ash Buchanan (Richard Wren). This is clearly a regular arrangement: Summerisle brings Willow young men for her to bed. Howie watches on bemused. Then Summerisle has a long speech about how he likes animals: “They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins. They do not make me sick discussing their duty to ‘God.’” Later, Howie is trying to sleep but has to ignore the sound of Willow and Ash having sex.
* The next morning, Howie and Willow share a quick scene and he asks where the school is. In the theatrical version it was replaced by a scene (absent from the long cut) where Willow wakes Howie with a cup of tea and says, “I thought you were going to come and see me last night.” (Because, of course, in that version of the film she’s already tried tempting Howie into bed.)
* A scene that was cut out in 1973 shows Howie questioning the island’s unhelpful doctor (John Sharp). Howie has been told that the missing Rowan Morrison has died and asks the GP how. “She was burnt to death,” he says. “As my lunch will be if I continue here talking to you.”
* Willow’s siren song happens now – during Howie’s *second* night on the island. As well as being moved, a verse was trimmed out when the film was edited down in 1973.
* In the longer edit Howie’s frantic search of the island has a couple of moments that were missing in the theatrical cut: he looks in the hairdressers, then falls down someone’s stairs.

REVIEW: It may be sacrilege to say it, but the shorter, butchered version of The Wicker Man is a better film than the original director’s cut. The theatrical print is leaner, tauter, pacier and jumps straight into the story, whereas the longer version has scenes that you just don’t need. The opening, for example, is six minutes of hammering home Howie’s puritanical, uptight Christianity. But cutting it in 1973 didn’t damage the film because later scenes (and Edward Woodward’s excellent performance) sell the notion perfectly well and more economically. The other major difference between the cuts is the shifting of Willow’s song from the story’s second night to its first. Again, the enforced change helps the movie. Not only does it pull Britt Ekland’s nudity forward – this is, after all, an exploitation film – but it means we lose Summerisle’s original introduction. His first scene in the director’s cut is a rather naff and redundant scene where we spy him standing him outside Willow’s window. In the 1973 release print, he gets a much stronger first moment: Howie thinks he’s in an empty room in Summerisle’s mansion, then Christopher Lee appears from behind a high-backed chair.

Nine slugs out of 10

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: This website was incredibly helpful in providing information and context.

Ten Things I Love About The Wicker Man (1973, Robin Hardy)

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SPOILER WARNING: These reviews reveal plot twists!

The Wicker Man is sometimes cited as Britain’s best horror film. Here are 10 reason why I think that might be so… (Note: this review is based on the version of the film released in 1973. I’ll cover the longer ‘director’s cut’ in the next blog.)

1. The story…
…which (seriously, big spoiler coming up now) is a huge con trick. Every character but one is lying throughout, which makes a first viewing a gripping mystery and repeat viewings great fun. Policeman Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives on a small, isolated island in the Hebrides in search of a missing 13-year-old girl. He’s been tipped off by an anonymous letter, but no one on the island – not even the girl’s supposed mother – appears to have heard of Rowan Morrison. They also seem benignly disinterested in Howie’s investigation. As the copper asks more and more questions, he also becomes aware that the villagers have abandoned Christianity in favour of pagan rituals and beliefs, many of which centre around sex. Eventually, he uncovers the truth: the disappearance of the girl was staged in order to lure him to the island – and the entire village is in on the ruse. They need a pure, righteous virgin for a horrific sacrificial ceremony…

2. Sgt Neil Howie…
…who is the movie’s point-of-view character. Edward Woodward holds the whole film together, appearing in every scene and playing Howie with total sincerity (and a decent Scottish accent). The earnest West Highland policeman arrives on the island in a dapper little seaplane (he represents the technologically advanced outside world, you see) but soon faces a frustrated enquiry. He’s a deeply religious man who prays before going to sleep and who rallies against the island’s heathen community. He’s also, we learn, engaged to be married and doesn’t believe in sex before marriage. Woodward’s measured performance is fantastic: just watch as Howie gets increasingly manic and angry and shocked from scene to scene. Howie’s a rather humourless man, yet you feel real sympathy for him during the harrowing final scene.

3. The music…
…which is vital to the movie’s eerie, unsettling vibe. The Wicker Man is essentially a musical in disguise. As well as mood-setting score, there are numerous scenes where characters burst into song. The first instance comes after just 11 minutes: Howie watches agog as a pub full of villagers serenade him with a lewd song called The Landlord’s Daughter. Even Howie himself gets to sing later on when he blasts out Psalm 23 as death approaches. Music is woven into the fabric of life on the island and the film’s many folk songs manage to sound both menacing and seductive at the same time.

4. The landscape…
…which gives the story a beautiful yet strange island setting. The movie was shot entirely on location in Scotland, which immediately differentiates it from, say, Hammer Horror films that were confined to sound-stages and Home County woodlands. In The Wicker Man, you can sense the fresh air blowing through every scene. We see the fishing village, the sea, cliffs and caves, the woods, fields and orchards, an abandoned churchyard and the stately manor – all locations with a bucolic, medieval, pre-science feel. Nature is so important to this story – it’s almost a character in itself – so images and discussions of it recur throughout.

5. The villagers…
…who are now the prime example of ‘happy yet creepy locals’ in a horror movie. When Howie arrives at the island, they’re reluctant to send a dinghy out to his seaplane. Then they pretend they’ve never heard of the child he’s looking for. Without being openly rude or aggressive, it’s clear that *something* is wrong. The scene also showcases some fantastically characterful faces: these are real people, not Hollywood extras. The action soon cuts to the village pub, The Green Man Inn, where we get one of the great the-music-stops-and-everyone-looks-round moments in cinema. But again a palpable sense of danger is being created because the villagers are being so *nice*: they smile, laugh, sing, dance; they never threaten Howie or tell him to get lost.

6. Willow…
…the beautiful, blonde barmaid at The Green Man who enjoys being the object of the villagers’ lusty affections. The film ekes out real menace because no one (not Willow, not her father) is at all concerned by a load of old men perving over her. Cast in the role was Swedish actress Britt Ekland, who brought both star power and sexual chemistry to what is actually a relatively minor role. (Britt had some help: not only is all of her dialogue dubbed by another actress, but a body double was brought in for some of the nudity.) The character’s showpiece scene comes during Howie’s first night on the island: he’s trying to sleep, but in the next room a naked Willow is singing a seductive song and rhythmically banging on the wall and writhing around. It’s an erotic temptation – an act designed to test the virgin Howie and make sure he’s the best possible person for the sacrifice. (Howie’s willpower holds. Somehow.)

7. The weirdness…
…which gives the film a relentlessly surreal, and often sexual, quality. Without ever going full-blown mental (and therefore losing the ‘truth’ of the situation), the bizarre behaviour soon starts to mount up… The local postmistress cheerfully denies her eldest daughter is missing, then later forces her youngest to hold a toad in her mouth as a cure for a sore throat. The village schoolteacher (Diane Cilento) teaches a class of 13-year-old girls about phallic symbolism. Howie stumbles across a midnight orgy going on in the middle of the village. The chemists has a jar full of foreskins for sale. A schoolgirl has a beetle tied to a piece of string attached to a nail, so the more it fights to get free the more it’s trapped. Women dance naked around some standing stones. Howie walks in on the local librarian (Ingrid Pitt, another bit of star casting) having a bath and possibly masturbating… and she just smiles at him.

8. Lord Summerisle…
…who is the leader of the community. He doesn’t actually appear until the 40th minute, but his entry into the story kicks Howie’s indignation into an even higher gear. It’s probably Christopher Lee’s finest acting performance: free of Dracula and co, he’s able to show charm, toss off quips (“Do sit down, Sergeant. Shocks are so much better absorbed with the knees bent”), affect nonchalance, and turn into an ever-smiling murderer. Lee was a prime mover in getting the film made and took it very personally when his studio bosses didn’t like it. 

9. The different edits…
…which mean this film has a fascinating production history and now exists in a variety of cuts. Basically, director Robin Hardy’s preferred version of the film was edited down by the producers before release. About 12 minutes were removed, much to the chagrin of Hardy and star Christopher Lee, then the unused negatives were junked. (The urban myth is they were thrown into a landfill site that’s now under a motorway – sometimes said to be the M3, sometimes the M4.) A few years later, however, Hardy remembered that a print of the longer edit had been sent to independent film producer Roger Corman so he could give his opinion on how to market the film in America. And he’d kept it. So the long version was released in 1977 – ironically with a few trims. I shall look at how the versions differ from each other in the following blog.

10. The ending…
…which is where this horror film becomes truly horrific. Having deduced that Rowan Morrison is to be sacrificed to appease the gods who let a harvest fail, Howie disguises himself and joins the village’s May Day parade. There are strange rituals along the way, including a moment when it seems that someone has been beheaded, then Howie sees Rowan near some caves. He races to save her and they flee… But it’s all a ruse. Rowan deliberately leads him onto a cliff where Summerisle, Willow and others are waiting. It’s not Rowan they’re going to sacrifice; it’s Howie. The whole thing has been a long con: they staged the girl’s disappearance to draw the virgin Howie to the island, then frustrated his investigation until May Day. The entire village was in on the charade, even the children. It’s an astonishingly chilling plot twist, in part because of how numb Woodward plays the revelation scenes. Howie knows there’s no way out so retreats inward, quietly praying and reaffirming his faith in Jesus. But then he’s led further up the headland and sees it… an enormous wicker statue, in which he’s to be burnt to death. “Oh, Christ! Oh, Jesus Christ,” he calls out, as much a call for help as a scream of desperation. He’s a man of faith, who believes he will be reborn through Jesus. But aren’t the villagers also people of faith? There’s a cheeky piece of religious satire going on here. Earlier in the movie, Howie, shocked by the community’s heathen beliefs, asked, “Have these children never heard of Jesus?” and Summerisle pointedly replied, “Himself the son of a virgin impregnated, I believe, by a ghost.” The difference, of course, is that the villagers are prepared to murder an innocent man for their beliefs… The Wicker Man is part of the ‘folk horror’ tradition – a series of stories set in isolated rural communities and featuring brutal, often violent behaviour. It’s the finest example, actually.

Ten apples out of 10

Downton Abbey: series 5 episode 1

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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 Catherine Morshead. Originally broadcast: 21 September 2014, ITV.

Edith’s secret daughter is now living with a local couple who are pretending the child is theirs. Tom’s friend Sarah causes a scene, Lord Merton woos Isobel, and Miss Baxter must confess her sordid past. Also, a local committee want to erect a memorial to the war dead and choose Mr Carson as their leader, much to Robert’s disappointment.

When is it set? An opening caption says ‘1924’. A comment from Jimmy tells us it’s after 14 February. Spring doesn’t seem to have sprung yet.

Where is it set? Downton Abbey. The Drewes’ farm. The local village including the churchyard and the school. Violet’s house. Tom Branson’s office on the estate.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* We met Tim Drewe – the farmer who agreed to adopt Edith’s secret daughter – in series four. Now we meet his wife, Margie (Emma Lowndes), who doesn’t know that the child is Edith’s. She’s been told that Marigold is an orphan, and initially thinks Edith’s visits to the farm are because she’s keen on Tim.
* Marigold herself appears for the first time.
* Mrs Wigan (Helen Sheals) is the spokesperson of the local committee that plan to erect a war memorial.
* Lady Anstruther (Anna Chancellor) used to be Jimmy’s employer and is still obsessed with him – specifically his body. She arranges to visit Downton and then stages a car breakdown so she has to stay the night. She teases Jimmy then passes him a suggestive note during dinner. Later, Robert finds the two of them in bed together and Lady S has to make a hasty exit during the night. Incidentally, actress Anna Chancellor’s great-great-grandfather was HH Asquith, who was British Prime Minister between 1908 and 1916. He was still leader of the Liberal Party at the time of this episode.
* Rose has a dippy friend called Kitty Colthurst (Louise Calf).

Best bits:
* Robert’s young granddaughter Sybie calls him Donk because they played a game involving a donkey, and he doesn’t like it.
* Isobel discusses her suitor Lord Merton with Violet, who says that he wants what all men want. Isobel flushes: “Don’t be ridiculous!” Violet points out that she meant companionship.
* The committee members come to Downton and embarrass Robert by asking his butler to lead the appeal.
* Mr Molesley uses a hair dye! “How do you think I look?” he nervously asks Miss Baxter. “How old?” She guesses 52. He’s actually 51. Later, Robert eyes him suspiciously: “Molesley, you look very Latin all of a sudden. Do you have Italian blood? Or Spanish? Or Irish?”
* Poor Miss Baxter has to confess a crime because nasty Thomas Barrow plans to out her. Even though she knows it might lose her her job, she tells Cora that she once stole some jewellery from an employer. She went to prison for three years.
* Daisy gets an interesting subplot. She’s frustrated with life so wants to improve her lot by learning about mathematics.
* Mary says that Edith looks miserable at a party. “I thought only imbeciles were happy all the time,” she replies.
* Later that night, Edith is crying in bed because she’s found a book that belonged to her missing lover, Michael Gregson. She throws the book in the fireplace, but it tumbles out and starts a fire. Thankfully, Thomas Barrow spots the smoke before anyone is hurt – but Edith’s room is gutted.

Worst bits:
* It’s Robert and Cora’s 34th wedding anniversary. In one of those awkward-sounding lines of dialogue that period dramas seem to enjoy, Daisy says, “Thirty-four years? If I were to marry this year, what would life be like in 1958?”
* Oh, good. Snooty schoolteacher Sarah Bunting is back. It’s an attempt at a ‘normal’ character – a respectable, independent woman who doesn’t come from the aristocracy – but she just comes off as rude and unlikable. Thinking Tom would like to see more of her, Rose invites Sarah to a party at Downton. It doesn’t go well. Robert takes against her, then Sarah can’t resist insulting him.
* Thomas Barrow is bullying Miss Baxter. He clearly holds something over her and- oh, never mind.
* Jimmy is suffering under the unwanted attentions of his former employer Lady Anstruther – and at first the storyline is all happening off-screen with Jimmy recounting letters and phone calls to Thomas Barrow. Later, even Cora refers to a strange phone call she’s had from Lady A. It’s like watching a movie where one of the lead actors has died during filming and all their scenes have had to be rewritten. But then she shows up, 38 minutes into the episode.
* There’s a reference to Tom Branson’s ‘American plans’ – ie, his intention to move to the States. This forgotten subplot was first mooted in an episode set two years prior to this one.

Real history:
* The first ever Labour government is the cause of consternation to Robert. An election on 6 December 1923 had led to a hung parliament. The Tories actually won the most seats, but on 22 January 1924 the Labour and Liberal parties came to an agreement and Labour leader Ramsey MacDonald became Prime Minister.
* Robert references Fu Manchu, a villainous character in many novels by Sax Rohmer starting with The Mystery of Dr Fu-Manchu (1913).
* Violet teases her friend Lady Shackleton when she weighs up Lord Merton’s prospects: “You sound like Mrs Bennet” – ie, a character from Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice (1813).
* Mary refers to a friend who spoke about a sexual encounter so graphically that Mary nearly fainted. The friend, Nancy Cunard (1896-1965), was an aristocrat but also a fierce anti-fascism and anti-racism campaigner.
* A nervous Jimmy says that maybe Lady Anstruther just wants to talk to him. “Maybe I’m the missing Tsarevich,” jokes Thomas Barrow. He’s referring to Alexei Nikolaevich (1904-1918), the heir to the Russian monarch who was murdered along with the rest of his family by the Bolsheviks. For decades rumours spread that he’d survived, but his remains were discovered in 2007.

Maggie Smithism of the week: “There’s nothing simpler than avoiding people you don’t like. Avoiding one’s friends, that’s the real test.”

Mary’s men: Robert is pleased when Tony Gillingham comes to stay. That’s because it’s Robert and Cora’s wedding anniversary, and he hopes it will inspire Tony to ask Mary to marry him. Mary is cautious, though. She likes Tony but confides in Anna that she worries about committing to someone before they’ve really spent a lot of time together. Or… you know… been intimate. After everyone’s gone to bed, Tony sneaks into Mary’s bedroom and says she’s in love with him. “Well, thank goodness that’s settled,” she quips. But he knows her issue, so asks her to come on a dirty weekend with him!

Doggie! Isis sits by the fire as the family enjoy tea, then bounds around after a walk with Robert. Later, when the fire spreads, Robert issues orders to everyone: “Mary, you take [the children]. Tony, go with her. Tom, come with me. You know where the sand buckets are kept… We must get [Edith] outside. Quickly, Tom! Tom, get the hose! Rose, go up and wake Mrs Hughes and the maids. She’ll do the rest. We must alert the estate firemen. Who knows where to find Drewe’s number? And save the dog!”  

Review: The Lady Anstruther storyline is rather silly, the Sarah one rather frustrating. But then we end on a large action sequence as a fire rips through a bedroom.

Next episode…

Demons (2009)

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

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: London, the modern day.

Faithful to the novel? It’s a spin-off, really. This short-lived TV series – one of ITV’s responses to the BBC’s Doctor Who – tells the story of teenager Luke Rutherford (Christian Cooke). He’s the last descendant of the famous vampire-hunter Abraham Van Helsing, who was actually a real person and not just a character in Bram Stoker’s book. Because of this lineage, Luke has a duty to ‘smite’ the various ‘half-life’ creatures (vampires, demons, harpies, etc) who live unseen in London. Luke learns all this from his American godfather, Rupert Galvin (Philip Glenister), who explains the mythology and guides him in the fight. He also introduces Luke to another person who was dramatised in Stoker’s novel: Mina Harker (a haughty, humourless Zoe Tapper), who looks about 30 but is immortal due to being infected by Count Dracula’s blood in the 1890s. She’s now a famous pianist, blind, and has a visionary sixth sense. In the first episode, Luke’s sarcy friend Ruby (Holliday Grainger) also gets caught up in proceedings and joins the team; she fancies Luke but he doesn’t realise. Later on, there’s another explicit connection to Bram Stoker when Mina’s son, Quincey, shows up. He was born near the end of the novel but is now a murderous vampire.

Best performance: Not this show’s strength, acting. The regulars can’t bring any life to the scripts, while guest stars such as Mackenzie Crook, Richard Wilson and Kevin McNally are often in League of Gentlemen-style make-up that encourages comedic playing. Philip Glenister is especially disappointing. Galvin was written as a Texan, but the actor opts for a soft, generic American accent and you can see the lack of conviction behind his eyes.

Best episode: Probably episode four, Suckers, which features some heavy connections to the book Dracula. We see flashbacks to a younger Mina during the First World War (when she deliberately turned her ill son into a vampire to save his life), while Luke is given a copy of Bram Stoker’s novel. He can’t be arsed to read it, though, so Ruby does it for him. When she reaches the final page she realises that Quincey is Mina’s son… but never mentions that another character called Quincey, who the son was named after, features in the novel from page 57 onwards.

Review: No one sets out to make a bad television series, but this is really, really crummy. It’s a British photocopy of the American TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with a young hero having to juggle school with secretly fighting demonic monsters. (He also has a foreign mentor called Rupert G and a mum who doesn’t know what’s going on; can call on the help of a sexy immortal; and uses a library as a base of operations. Joss Whedon is owed royalties.) But Demons feels like a series made by people who neither understand nor have a passion for the genre. Shows as good as Buffy support their strangeness and mythologies with strong characters, genuine emotion and a balance of action, drama and humour. But here there’s never any sense of the stories or the characters or the situations existing organically. Everything feels mechanical and soulless and hackneyed. It’s all effect, no cause. (Oh, and the fight scenes are often rubbish.)

Three scenes filmed at Highgate Cemetery out of 10

Downton Abbey: The London Season

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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 Jon East. Originally broadcast: 25 December 2013, ITV.

The bulk of the family are staying in London for Rose’s coming-out ball, but there’s trouble when she’s caught up in a royal scandal. Meanwhile, Edith is struggling after giving away her daughter, Cora’s mother and brother come to visit, and Tom rekindles his flirtation with local teacher Sarah…

When is it set? About a year has passed since the last episode, so we’re in 1923. Mary visits the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, meaning we’re in June, July or August. 

Where is it set? Downton Abbey. Violet’s house. Isobel’s house. The local village and its pub. A seaside town (filmed in West Wittering, West Sussex). There’s also plenty of action in London, where we visit the Embassy night club; the Royal Academy; Rosamund’s house; Buckingham Palace; Hyde Park; and Grantham House, a large townhouse in London owned by the Crawleys.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Since the last episode Edith has had her baby in secret and returned to her pre-pregnancy size. She gave birth to a girl, then gave her away to a couple called the Schroders in Switzerland. However, the guilt is now unbearable, so she arranges for local famers the Drewes to take the girl instead. She tells Mr Drewe that the child’s mother was a friend who’s died, but he clearly sees through her lie…
* Rose has a new pal called Madeline Allsopp (Poppy Drayton), who is smitten when she meets Cora’s brother. She’s hurt, though, when he thinks she’s only after his money.
* Madeline’s father, Lord Aysgarth (James Fox), attempts unsuccessfully to bag Cora’s rich mother. He frequents the same night club as his daughter and is also a friend of…
* The Prince of Wales (Oliver Dimsdale) is a socialite as well as being heir to the throne.
* Freda Dudley Ward (Janet Montgomery) is the Prince’s mistress. Having befriended Rose, she shows her a private and incriminating letter from the Prince, which is then stolen. Rose arranges for it be to retrieved, so a grateful Prince shows up at a party and dances with her.
* Cora’s mother, Mrs Levinson, appears again and this time brings her son. Harold (Paul Giamatti) hasn’t been to the UK since Cora’s wedding, so Mary and Edith have never met their uncle before. At a party, Madeline takes a shine to him and then later at a nightclub he’s embarrassed into dancing with her. After he accidentally offends her, he arranges a conciliatory picnic near the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park. To preserve decorum, Cora and her mother come along too. The relationship doesn’t bloom into romance but rather a sweet understanding.
* Ethan Slade (Michael Benz) is Harold’s upbeat, smiley, American valet. He fancies Daisy and tries to get her a job with Mr Levinson, but she turns him down…
* …so Ivy jumps in, grabs the job instead and leaves for America.
* Terence Sampson, the card sharp who once fleeced Robert, shows up again when he gets invited to a Crawley party. He steals Freda’s love letter from the Prince of Wales, hoping to sell it to the newspapers.

Best bits:
* It’s suggested that Mary will have to share a bedroom with her sister while staying at Grantham House. “I’d rather sleep on the roof than share with Edith,” she says.
* Paul Giamatti is terrific as Harold. His nervy friendship with Madeline is very sweet indeed and there’s also a funny moment when he tries talking to the Prince of Wales like a normal person. When the Prince flounces off, Harold just laughs.
* “Are you excited?” Ethan asks Daisy. “I’m never excited,” she deadpans.
* Frustrated with English stiff-upper-lippedness, Edith says she envies “all those Latins screaming and shouting and hurling themselves into graves.”
* The sequence of Rose being presented to the king and queen is a run of excellent location work on the Mall, beautiful costumes and production design, and the kind of pre-war grandeur that great period dramas can achieve. (There’s also a fun in-joke: the show’s historical advisor, Alastair Bruce, cameos as the equerry reading out names at the ceremony.)
* Robert says he feels guilty for leaving Isobel behind while they all went off to the Palace. “Why?” asks his mother. “She brought a book with her.”
* When Robert learns that Sampson has stolen a sensitive letter that could embarrass the monarchy, he sets into motion a plan to steal it back. The episode then becomes a caper movie with numerous characters colluding in distracting Sampson with a card game while the letter is retrieved from his flat. (When it becomes clear that someone will have to lie to him, Mary says, “I’ll do it. I don’t mind lying.”) However, the letter can’t be found – Sampson must have taken it with him to the card game. So Mr Bates pickpockets it from his coat.
* The servants’ day by the seaside is lovely. The episode ends with Mrs Hughes and Mr Carson standing in the sea and holding hands. Aww.

Worst bits:
* “Why wasn’t Grantham House sold when Downton was in [financial] trouble?” asks Tom Branson, aware of bloggers who like being snide about plot holes.
* Poor Tom also has another dreary storyline. His sort-of romance with the rude Sarah Bunting – who does nothing but turn her nose up at things – is a slog to sit through.
* Mrs Hughes is gathering unwanted clothes for a local charity and Anna donates an old coat of Mr Bates’s. Mrs H finds a railway ticket in the pocket, which proves that Bates was in London (not York, as he claimed) when Mr Green was killed. Downton Abbey doesn’t do murder mysteries very well at all. The pacing is all wrong, huge details are thrown away, and key events aren’t dramatised. Also, as in this case, the plotting swings on silly coincidences. If you’d bought a train ticket that was crucial for your alibi for a murder, would you leave it in an old coat pocket? At least it leads to some entertaining scenes: Mrs Hughes knowingly questions Mr Bates, who says he hasn’t been in London since the war, then Mary and Bates share some meaningful looks when they discuss the capital.

Real history:
* Mary calls Rose a flapper. Rose denies it. The flappers were socially liberal women in the 1920s who went in for daringly short skirts, bob-cut hair styles, and a love of jazz and parties.
* This episode dramatises a number of real-life people. Edward, Prince of Wales (1894-1972) later became King Edward VIII, but was on the throne for less than a year in 1936. Freda Dudley Ward (1894-1983) was a socialite and Edward’s mistress from 1918 until 1934, when he dumped her for Wallis Simpson. And as part of her ‘coming out’ – an aristocratic ritual for young women – Rose is presented to Edward’s parents, King George V (1865-1936) and Queen Mary (1867-1953).
* Charles Blake tells Mary that he’s not as much as a Robespierre as she assumes. Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794) was one of the key leaders of the French Revolution.
* When Cora suggests a servants outing as a thank you for their hard work, Mr Carson wants to take everyone to either the Science Museum in South Kensington “even though it’s not finished” or the Crystal Palace on “its new site at Sydenham Hill.” He’s right about the Science Museum: although first opened in 1857, during the time period of this episode it was moving into new premises and opening section-by-section. But his knowledge of the Crystal Palace – an enormous glass building first constructed for the Great Exhibition in 1851 – is more shaky. Yes, it originally stood in Hyde Park. Yes, it was then moved to a new site in south-east London. But that move happened in 1854 – *69 years* before this episode. Carson later also suggests the Royal Institution, the Natural History Museum or Westminster Abbey as places they can visit, none of which is received with any enthusiasm. So they go for a day at the seaside instead.
* Isobel says Violet sounds like the sister of Marie Antoinette. “The Queen of Naples was a stalwart figure,” says Violet, taking it as a compliment. They’re referring to Maria Carolina of Austria, Queen of Naples and Sicily (1752-1814).
* Robert makes a reference to the womanising habits of the late king Edward VII (1841-1910). He hopes the current Prince of Wales doesn’t “revive the ways of his grandpapa, winking at every beauty in an opera box.”
* When Jimmy makes a sarcastic comment about his lowly position, Carson says, “Thank you, Wat Tyler.” Tyler (died 1381) led a Peasants’ Revolt against a proposed poll tax, but was killed two days later during negotiations with King Richard II.
* Edith gets word that the missing Michael Gregson got into a fight with a gang on his first night in Munich. “They wear brown shirts and go around preaching the most horrible things,” she says. The Sturmabteilung was the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party.
* Violet sarcastically says that the family’s itinerary – an open-air picnic followed by an after-dinner poker game – makes her feel like she’s fallen through a looking glass into Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, an 1862/63 painting by Édouard Manet (1832-1883).

Upstairs, Downton: In this episode of Downton Abbey we meet George V. His father, Edward VII, appeared in a famous episode of the original Upstairs Downstairs (Guest of Honour, 1972), while his son Prince George, Duke of Kent (1902-1942) was a semi-regular character in the show’s 2010 revival. Also, this episode’s trip to the seaside for the servants recalls a similar sequence in the 1974 Updown episode The Sudden Storm.

Maggie Smithism of the week: During a tiff with Isobel, Violet asks, “Can’t you even offer help without sounding like a trumpeter on the peak of the moral high ground?”

Mary’s men: While she’s in London, Mary gets a visit from Charles Blake. He takes her to the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, but is rather miffed that they bump into his rival/friend Tony Gillingham. Both men then attend a party at Mary’s house and continue to woo her. Later, when the Crawleys arrange a card game to distract Sampson, Violet asks why “Mary’s men” are coming. Mary: “Don’t call them ‘Mary’s men’!” On the night itself, Charles Blake accompanies Mary as they search Sampson’s flat; he’s happy to have been asked to help. But she’s still undecided between him and Tony. Her main issue with Charles is that he’s an outsider; not a part of aristocracy. When she tells Tony this, honourable Tony has to admit that Charles is secretly heir to a baronetcy and a large fortune. Mary goes to find Charles at the ball and they dance…

Doggie! In London, Robert says he wishes Tom would travel down from Yorkshire… because he’s going to bring Isis with him and Robert misses her. We later see the dog with Tom while he shows Sarah the inside of Downton Abbey, then getting into a car with Tom as they head for London. Once they arrive, Robert is happy to see the pooch.

Review: This feature-length Christmas special is mostly set in London with the roaring twenties in full swing. Light on its feet and packed full of both frothy escapism and character substance, this is probably Downton Abbey’s finest episode.

Next episode…

Dracula (1979, John Badham)

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

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: The entire film takes place in and around Whitby – so we never see Castle Dracula nor go to London. It’s slightly later than the 1890s of the novel, evidenced by the presence of cars. Some sources claim it’s 1913.

Faithful to the novel? The script is based on the 1920s stage adaptation of Dracula and differs from the book in several key ways.
* As mentioned above, the action is limited to Whitby.
* The story begins with the wreck of the Demeter and the eponymous character’s arrival in Britain.
* Unlike in the novel, Count Dracula (Frank Langella) makes friends with the good guys before starting to seduce the women.
* The hero characters’ relationships have been jumbled around. Lucy (Kate Nelligan) is now the daughter of Dr Jack Seward (a fruity Donald Pleasence), rather than someone he wants to marry. Her other suitors from the book, Arthur and Quincey, have been dropped. And her role in the story has also been swapped with that of her friend Mina (Jan Francis), who now becomes Dracula’s first victim. In another break from the book, Mina is the daughter of Abraham Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier), who appears on the scene after she dies.
* Because of the Lucy/Mina switch, solicitor Jonathan Harker (an over-keen Trevor Eve) is now the boyfriend of Lucy. He also never goes to Transylvania, though is still dealing with the Count’s affairs.
* Local man Renfield (Tony Haygarth) is not an inmate at Seward’s sanatorium, as in the novel, but he still falls under Dracula’s thrall.
* The building the vampire has bought, meanwhile, is in Whitby not London – and is a Gothic castle rather than a townhouse.

Best performance: Frank Langella had been playing Dracula in a Broadway revival of the stage play since October 1977. Whether trading cool repartee over dinner or climbing down the side of a building, the Count exudes charm and authority. He wears a cape but uses a neutral accent and, at the insistence of Langella, never flashes any fangs.

Best bit: Well, it’s certainly not the bit where Mina can’t breathe after her sexual encounter with Dracula. What does medical expert Dr Seward do? He slaps her round the face and shouts the word ‘Breathe’ a few times. Not too surprisingly, she then dies. More positively, the sight of the undead Mina is a creepy bit of make-up.

Review: There’s some great staging in this film. The sets are very impressive, while the wreck of the Demeter on a beach is achieved via a full-size ship on a real location. There’s also a good attempt to beef up the gothic-romance side of the story, especially in the subplot of Lucy’s fascination with Dracula. (Their ‘sex scene’ is dramatised by trippy, music-video-like visuals put together by James Bond title-sequence designer Maurice Binder.) John Williams’s score is terrific too. But the whole enterprise has a very earnest tone. The cast – some good, some poor – are fighting against a lacklustre script and the cinematography is very cold with lots of drab, lifeless greys. (Although, perhaps I’m being unfair on that last point because the movie on DVD looks very different from its 1979 print. Director John Badham had wanted to shoot the film in black and white – partly as a homage to the 1931 Dracula – but was overruled by his bosses at Universal Pictures. So when it was released on Laserdisc in 1991, he took the opportunity to de-saturate the image, bringing it closer in line with his original vision. That’s the default version now, which is a shame.)

Six children of the night (what sad music they make) out of 10

Downton Abbey: series 4 episode 8

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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 Edward Hall. Originally broadcast: 10 November 2013, ITV.

As plans are made for a local bazaar, Isobel urges Tom to go into politics, Anna gets a shock, and Rose continues her taboo relationship with Jack Ross. Also, Edith wants to go abroad to have her baby in secret…

When is it set? Summer 1922. We begin within a day of the previous episode and events take place over a long-ish period. Robert only left for a trip to America in the preceding episode and returns during the church bazaar that closes the season, yet people act like he’s been gone for ages.

Where is it set? The Drewes’ farm. Violet’s house. Downton Abbey and its grounds. Thirsk. The local village. The Lotus Club, Rosamund’s house and a swanky restaurant in London. Mr Mason’s farm.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) returns to the show. We first saw him in at the start of series three when he was embarrassed at a dinner by his boorish son. Now Violet is matchmaking him with a lonely Isobel.

Best bits:
* Anna’s torment is so moving. This week, she has to contend with her attacker, the vile Mr Green, visiting the house again. She tells Mary that it was he who raped her but swears her to secrecy because if Mr Bates finds out he’ll resort to murder. Mary then uses her influence to get Green sacked.
* While in Thirsk, Tom Branson spots Rose having tea with Jack Ross. He tells Mary, who warns Rose off him. Rose, though, then announces that she and Jack are engaged. So Mary travels to London to plead with Jack directly. He sadly accepts that an interracial marriage would cause too many problems…
* Mr Molesley makes an effort at being friendly with Miss Baxter. “I do know what it’s like to feel fragile,” he tells her touchingly.
* Edith comes up with a plan: have her baby in secret and donate it to a local farming family, the Drewes. But Aunt Rosamund suggests they go abroad and give the child to a foreign family. Edith’s plan has much more story potential, so which one will they go with?
* Violet sees through Edith and Rosamund’s plan, calls them to tea and confronts them. The way she’s put the clues together is worthy of Columbo.
* In a lovely piece of subtle direction, Lord Merton asks Isobel about her son while they walk past the churchyard where he’s buried.
* Tony Gillingham shows up at the church bazaar with the shock news that Mr Green is dead. He apparently stumbled into the traffic on Piccadilly… (Wonder if former Downton footman Alfred witnessed it? He now works at the Ritz Hotel on Piccadilly.)

Worst bits:
* Edith accompanies Mary and Tom to inspect some pigs solely so she can be in place to hear Mr Drewe the farmer say that he owes the Crawley family a favour.
* The woman Tom Branson met last episode, schoolteacher Sarah Bunting, shows up again. She’s being introduced as both a love interest for Tom and – because she’s a lefty – a way of making him feel guilty about joining the aristocracy. Sadly the character is quite unlikable, so neither plot really works. All she does is make snide comments.

Real history:
* Violet is recuperating after her illness. She says she feels like Dr Manette, a character from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859) who was imprisoned in the Bastille.
* Violet and Isobel discuss the Teapot Dome Scandal currently going on in America. Violet spells it out for viewers: “Bribery and corruption. Taking money to allow private companies to drill for oil on government land.” Cora’s brother, Harold, owns one of the companies.
* Robert says that, now he’s returned from America, it’s a relief to be able to drink in public without a policeman pouncing. Prohibition wouldn’t be lifted until 1933.

Maggie Smithism of the week: Violet says her daughter, Rosamund, has no interest in learning French. “If she wishes to be understood by a foreigner, she shouts.”

Mary’s men: She’s more favourable towards Charles Blake now that he’s proved his worth. And she’s impressed when he takes hold of baby George and calms him. He later tells her he won’t let her go without a fight… However, her other suitor, Tony Gillingham, comes to visit and tells Mary he’s planning on dumping his fiancée. She tells him not to on her account: she’s not free.

Doggie! Isis is wandering about at the church bazaar.

Review: There’s an awful lot going on in this longer-than-usual season finale. One of the most interest things is Mr Green’s death. On the day he falls under a bus on Piccadilly, both Anna and Mary are in London and Mr Bates says he was in York, though we don’t see him and he doesn’t tell anyone what he was up to. A murder-mystery is being kick-started, though of course it’s typical Downton Abbey that we don’t see the murder itself.

Next episode…

 

The Karate Kid (2010, Harald Zwart)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

American Dre Parker is the target of bullies when he moves to Beijing, so the local handyman comes to his aid…

Cast and story:
* This remake of The Karate Kid, filmed 26 years after the original, follows the same basic storyline. But there are also some significant changes.
* Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) is an American boy who’s forced to move to China when his mother, Shelley (Taraji P Henson), gets a new job. Unlike the original movie’s 16-year-old Daniel, Dre is just 12.
* They leave a drab, saturated, rainy Detroit and fly to the vibrant, bright, busy Beijing. It soon becomes clear that one of the aims of this American/Chinese co-production is to show off China in a positive light. Both the city and the surrounding countryside look gorgeous, while the film ignores any difficult political stuff.
* Having moved into an apartment building, Dre soon meets handyman Han (Jackie Chan). He’s a bit of a loner and doesn’t mix with the other workmen. (Han solo, you might say.) He also tinkers with a damaged car that’s parked inside his home.
* Dre then plays basketball with some new friends (not football, as in the 1984 film). He flirts with a girl called Meiying (Wenwen Han) but irritates a local bully called Cheng (Zhenwei Wang). Cheng and his cronies are soon picking on Dre, who tries to fight back but ends up getting hurt.
* So, wanting a way of defending himself, Dre seeks out a local kung-fu school. (Yup, that’s right. Because we’re in China, the story’s martial art is kung-fu not karate. They kept the movie title from 1984 just for marketing reasons.) But wouldn’t you know it? The school he investigates is where Cheng and co are being taught how to be thugs by a psycho sensei.
* This telling of the story has no fancy-dress party, but Dre – like Daniel before him – still can’t resist tipping water over Cheng and legging it. Cheng gives chase through the streets and eventually corners him. Cheng and his gang then start to beat Dre up, but Han appears and stops them with ease… Now, here is a significant area where this movie has missed the point of the original. In the 1984 film, it’s a huge moment when the elderly, short, meek Mr Miyagi quashes a rough, tough gang of aggressive teenagers. He shouldn’t be able to do that! Here, however, the teenagers have been aged down to 12. And the Mr Miyagi figure is played by Jackie fucking Chan. *Of course* he can best a gang of brats. He’d still win if there were a hundred of them! The surprise, the wow factor, is totally lost by these casting choices.
* Han visits the king-fu school and – like Mr Miyagi in 1984 – strikes a deal with the bullies’ teacher, Li (Yu Rongguang). Cheng will leave Dre alone until after an upcoming tournament. The sequence is capped by a good gag: because the deal is struck in Chinese, it’s only on the walk home that Dre finds out he has to fight in a competition. “Huh?” he asks, not unreasonably.
* We then get the equivalent of the wax-on/wax-off stuff from the original – but with a nice twist. Dre has a habit of dropping his coat on the floor, and Han had earlier seen his mother getting irate about it. So, to begin with, Dre’s training regime consists *only* of him hanging his jacket up, putting it back on, taking it off, hanging it up again… and so on, ad infinitum. Of course, Dre gets frustrated with doing this a thousand times, but he’s unconsciously learning the basic kung-fu moves.
* Meanwhile, Dre is also still trying to chat up Meiying. They see each other at a shadow-puppet show and share a kiss. But her fussy parents object to her dating an American boy when she should be practising the violin. (Later, though, they’re impressed when Dre learns how to suck up to them in Chinese.)
* Jackie Chan then gets the same drama scene that Pat Morita had in the original: Dre finds Han drunk and mourning his dead family. Mr Miyagi’s wife and son died 40 years earlier in childbirth; Han’s were killed in a car crash – in the car he’s now obsessively tinkering with. It’s a very sweet moment when Dre pulls his friend out of his depression.
* After a training montage, we’re into the Open Kung-fu Tournament. The story then follows much the same beats as in 1984.

Review: This remake of The Karate Kid is enjoyable enough, with a mixture of pros and cons. It’s directed with an indie sensibility, so as well as lots of handheld camerawork we get some lovely and kooky images. When the drama comes it’s often effective – especially the moment when Dre realises Han’s been teaching him to fight – while the fights themselves are great; helped by some violent sound effects, you feel every punch and kick. But the movie is too long (135 minutes) and lowering the characters’ ages works against the story. Writing Dre and the other kids as 12-year-olds makes the bullies seem silly rather than menacing; gives Han an unfair advantage; and pushes Dre’s ‘romance’ with Meiying into uncomfortable territory. Presumably the switch was made so that Jaden Smith – the son of executive producer Will Smith – could be cast.

Six cobras out of 10