Downton Abbey: series 6 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 Minkie Spiro. Originally broadcast: 20 September 2015, ITV.

Violet is apoplectic when a nearby hospital wants to take over running Downton’s cottage hospital. Meanwhile, a woman tries to blackmail Mary, Edith has problems running her magazine, and Robert considers downsizing the staff.  

When is it set? An opening caption tells us it’s 1925. It’s the hunt season. Robert refers to the “spring/summer ahead.”

Where is it set? Downton Abbey, its estate and the local village. Violet’s house. Dr Clarkson’s office. Michael Gregson’s old flat in London. Mallerton, a nearby country house that’s selling off its contents.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* A young Liverpudlian woman (Nichola Burley) shows up at the house on the day of the hunt and acts coyly when Carson asks why she’s there. She then watches Mary ride along and the two swap looks. Eventually Mary asks who she is and she introduces herself as Rita Bevan. She worked as a chambermaid at the hotel where Mary and Lord Gillingham had a week of secret nookie, and wants a £1,000 for her silence. Mary basically tells her to get lost, so the following morning Rita blags her way into Mary’s bedroom to threaten her; then the next day she tries her luck with Robert. He knew nothing about the dirty weekend, of course, and pays her to bugger off. But he only gives her £50 and gets her to sign a confession, which he’ll hand to the police if she comes back.
* Both Tom Branson and Lady Rose have, separately, moved to America since the previous episode. We’re told that Tom’s in Boston and Rose is in New York with her husband, Atticus.
* A local aristocrat, Sir John Darnley (Adrian Lukis), has fallen on hard times so is selling his large estate and auctioning off his possessions. Robert, Edith, Mary and Cora attend the auction and (for some reason) take Daisy with them – but Daisy can’t resist shouting at the estate’s new owner, who is threatening to evict her father-in-law.

Best bits:
* Having accepted Mr Carson’s marriage proposal, Mrs Hughes – a lifelong spinster, despite her title – is nervous about being intimate with him. Aww, bless. “Perhaps you can keep the lights off,” says Mrs Patmore, trying to help.
* A distraught Anna admits to her husband that she thought she was pregnant but now knows she isn’t; and this isn’t the first time. It’s another very moving performance from the amazing Joanne Froggatt.
* Violet’s bewilderment when Mary announces that she’s going to work as Downton’s agent.
* Mrs Patmore tries talking to Mr Carson about his wife’s fears. It’s comically awkward at first, then becomes very sweet.
* Violet’s maid, Denker, learns that her job is safe but that Downton’s staff is to be reduced. Being a shit-stirrer she gleefully swans over to Downton to tell the servants. When Violet finds out about the indiscretion, she allows Denker to believe that her job is at risk too. “Sometimes it’s good to rule by fear,” she confides in Isobel.

Worst bits:
* The argument over the local hospital – Violet and Dr Clarkson wanting it to remain independent, Isobel and Cora advocating an arrangement with a larger institution – is the start of a very dull storyline.
* Rita has waited 12 months before attempting to blackmail Mary.
* Mr Green’s murder investigation drones on into a *fourth* calendar year. The Metropolitan Police are putting a huge amount of time and effort into the maybe-accidental death of a footman. Now, a woman has confessed to killing him but the police think she might be making it up. So while free, Anna and Mr Bates are still on tenterhooks… Then Sgt Willis shows up a few days later to tell them that the confession has been proved genuine. Downton Abbey’s worst long-running storyline is finally over.
* Violet says that Robert seems troubled. “Maybe I am,” he admits. “To be honest, I’m starting to ask myself how much longer we can go on with it all… The household, the servants.” He knows there are only nine episodes left, doesn’t he?!

Real history:
* Rita plans to sell her story to the News of the World, a newspaper published between 1843 and 2011.
* Edith says that she once met the writers Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), and Lytton Strachley (1880-1932).
* Mary compares her father to Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), the Italian diplomat who revolutionised political science by codifying amoral behaviour.
* She also refers to The Fall of The House of Usher, an 1839 short story by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849).
* Spratt mentions The Lady, a women’s weekly magazine since 1885.
* After Daisy has caused a scene at the auction, Carson wants her punished. “I’m sure she regrets it,” says Cora. Carson: “I daresay Guy Fawkes regretted trying to blow up parliament, m’lady, but he still had to pay the price.” Fawkes (1570-1606) was the most famous of the conspirators behind the 1605 Gunpowder Plot.
* Mrs Hughes quotes Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), the ruler of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1650s, who instructed painter Sir Peter Lely to paint him ‘warts and all’.

Upstairs, Downton: Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes’s relationship is very reminiscent of Mr Hudson and Mrs Bridges in Upstairs, Downstairs – two middle-aged servants who have been friends for decades but romance blossoms.

Maggie Smithism of the week: “Does it ever get cold on the moral high ground?”

Doggie! The first shot of the episode is of loads of hounds bustling to get free from a pen: Downton is getting ready for a hunt.

Review: The final season begins – and change is afoot. Not only is Robert thinking about reducing the staff at Downton but blackmailer Rita tells Mary that her kind is finished and the working classes are on the way up. Daisy’s father-in-law is also going to be homeless because his farm is being sold by its aristocratic owners.

Next episode…

Penny Dreadful: season one (2014)

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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: An early scene in episode one tells us it’s 22 September 1891. The events mostly take place in London. We also see a flashbacks to some of the characters’ youths.

Faithful to the novel? This first season of glossy television drama Penny Dreadful takes a couple of characters from Stoker’s book and mixes them with several other 19th-century creations as well as some new elements. The idea of a mash-up of Victorian fictions is nothing new, of course: from the Universal horror movies of the 1940s to Kim Newman’s novel series Anno Dracula and the comic book The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, it’s a well-mined idea. Penny Dreadful’s biggest steal from Dracula is the character Mina Murray, who as the season begins has gone missing. We’re told she was married to a solicitor called Jonathan Harker, but then became embroiled with a mysterious, supernatural creature and became his slave. Her father, the explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), doesn’t appear in the novel but is a lead character here. He’s searching for his daughter with the help of an original character called Vanessa Ives (Eva Green). She’s an enigmatic woman who’s haunted by evil spirits. In episode four, another of Stoker’s creations shows up – but oddly Professor Van Helsing (David Warner) is a colleague of a non-Dracula character. Vanessa also makes a passing reference to Henry Irving, Bram Stoker’s real-life employer and mentor who was an influence on Dracula’s eponymous villain. Away from Stoker, Penny Dreadful’s dramatis personae is a mixture of people borrowed from famous literature (Dr Victor Frankenstein, Dorian Gray) and characters invented for the show.

Best performance: Eva Green plays Vanessa like a swan – she’s an elegant, controlled beauty but there’s enormous power and violence under the surface. The character is a torrid mix of guilt and doubt yet hides it so well, and Green’s performance ranges from serene poise to literally foaming at the mouth. In episode two, for example, there’s an extraordinary séance sequence that sees her possessed by malevolent, foul-mouthed spirits. It’s a bravura piece of acting. Incidentally, Green is just one of many Penny Dreadful alumni who have connections to the James Bond films. She played Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, while elsewhere there’s also creator/writer John Logan (who co-wrote Skyfall and Spectre), executive producer Sam Mendes (who directed Skyfall and Spectre), and actors Timothy Dalton (The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill), Rory Kinear (Quantum of Solace onwards), Joseph Millson (Casino Royale) and Helen McClory (Skyfall).

Finest episode: Closer Than Sisters, the dark, twisted, intensely peculiar fifth episode, is a thing of wonder. It’s an hour-long flashback, telling Vanessa’s back story, filling in some of her mystery and explaining her connection to the Murrays. Vanessa suffers family upheaval, demonic possession and extreme medical ‘treatment’.

Review: The world presented in Penny Dreadful is a fascinating place, if not that original. It’s ‘Gothicana’: a never-existed London of Cockney boozers, opium dens, Pall Mall gentlemen’s clubs, secret crime gangs, mentions of Jack the Ripper, prostitutes waiting in fogbound streets, rat-infested docks, Tower Bridge under construction, and Grand Guignol theatre shows. It’s a shame the drama that takes place there isn’t more gripping. A big problem is a distinct lack of urgency. The various stories meander along, and we drift from subplot to subplot. There are sparks of energy when the characters start to crossover and collide – there’s a terrific sequence at a theatre in episode four which has Ethan, Bronagh, Vanessa, Dorian, Caliban and Sebene all in attendance – but all too often there’s a slow, earnest pace. There is some genuine horror and a few shocking plot twists, but sadly the show is a bit humourless and pretentious.

Six exorcisms out of 10

Alien: Covenant (2017, Ridley Scott)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

On 5 December 2104, the crew of the spaceship Covenant are awoken early from their hibernation. Spotting a nearby planet, they land and explore, hoping to start a new colony. But the planet is not uninhabited…

The cast: The opening scene is set before Prometheus, the previous film in this series, and features two characters from that movie. Peter Wayland is younger than we’d previously seen him, so actor Guy Pearce has shed his old-man prosthetics, while the android David (Michael Fassbender) is being switched on for the first time. We then cut to around 10 years after the events of Prometheus and Michael Fassbender appears again. But it’s not David. He’s now playing another android called Walter. (This one has an American accent.) Walter’s keeping an eye on the spaceship Covenant as its human crew and 2000 colonists are in stasis. Then a plot device wakes the crew up unexpectedly and we start to meet them. Here lies a big problem: the cast is just too big. The first Alien movie has only seven people in it, and all were vivid and vibrant characters. Its immediate sequel had many more, but focused on a select few and made sure the others were memorable. Here, we’re bombarded with *15* really bland people we’re supposed to know and care about, and not one of them is given a memorable introduction. It could have been even more, but the captain is killed before he even wakes up. (Oddly, James Franco – often a leading man – was cast for this perfunctory character.) Some come across better than others. Katherine Waterston as Daniels is the closest thing to an Ellen Ripley type: a strong-willed woman who survives until the end. Billy Crudup gives an okay performance as Oram, the second-in-command who has to replace the captain. Comic actor Danny McBride wears a cowboy hat so you can always pick him out as Tennessee. But most of the characters are dully dull. Several of the crew are also paired off into married couples – all straight, mind – and it’s a tiresome struggle to remember which one is wed to which, even with people crowbarring phrases like ‘my wife’ into their dialogue. Much later in the film, after the crew have landed on a planet, they meet David. He’s been stranded there for several years. The movie then heads into batshit-crazy territory as Fassbender has some risible, tedious, two-handed scenes where he plays both David and Walter at the same time. (“Watch me, I’ll do the fingering.”)

The best bit: As in Prometheus, the film comes alive when it feels closest to the original Alien. The first burst of xenomorph action comes after 40 minutes or so. One of the group has been infected by microscopic bugs and starts convulsing and then vomits. He’s taken by two female colleagues to a medical bay aboard the ship and shakes violently; then an alien bursts out of his back and attacks the women. The cutting is good, the music is tense, there’s some smart handheld camerawork, and we even get a couple of moments of black comedy as people slip on pools of blood. You really feel the dread and panic and terror. The film then goes back to being sluggish and underwhelming.

Review: It’s happened before. Someone has a huge success, but then misunderstands why people liked it so much. For example, when George Lucas returned to the Star Wars series in the 1990s he seemed to be under the impression that the world had been charmed by the earlier films’ diplomacy drama and clunky religion. No, George. We liked the swashbuckling and comedy and action-adventure. And now we have Ridley Scott, the visionary director who recalibrated what science-fiction cinema could achieve with 1979’s Alien… who’s under the impression that the monster would be more terrifying if we understood its origins. Um, no. It was so frightening because we *didn’t* know what it is or where it comes from. Alien: Covenant continues Prometheus’s quest to ask big questions about God, the universe, creation and the origins of life – but in such hamfisted ways that it starts to feel like a soppy Christian film. “All these wonders of art, design, human ingenuity,” ponders Peter in the opening scene. “All utterly meaningless in the face of the only question that matters: where do we come from?” Oh, grow up. An even bigger issue, however – as it was in Prometheus – is the stupidity of the characters. In order to believe in and root for fictional people, we have to have confidence in them and yearn for them to overcome obstacles. That’s how storytelling works. But it all falls apart if the characters are so dense they actively create their own obstacles. Here’s a sample of cretinous behaviour:

* The crew change a meticulously planned and researched mission just because they spot a new planet.
* An officer objects to people holding a brief memorial service for their dead friends.
* We’re told the company don’t trust people of faith… by the man of faith who’s in charge of an enormously important mission.
* A soldier wanders off on his own while exploring a virgin planet and seems utterly bored by everything.
* People shove their faces right up close to never-before-seen forms of life.
* The leader of the team is told to hurry back to the ship in an emergency and walks slower than an elderly woman with some heavy shopping.
* A woman puts her naked hand on a man’s bloody scar.
* Characters meet Walter’s doppelganger and don’t comment on it.
* A husband learns his wife is dead and gets over it within two scenes.
* A young couple are so traumatised by their colleagues being brutally killed they go and have a sexy shower together.

Of course, there are some positives. A few of the performances are interesting and the film looks amazing. (Ridley Scott movies always do.) The score also echoes Jerry Goldsmith’s music from the 1979 movie. But overall this is such a disappointment. People get picked off one-by-one and it’s impossible to care about them. The creepy, enigmatic David turns out to have a secret agenda (just like last time). And the film ends on one of cinema’s most see-through-able plot twists ever.

Five flutes out of 10

Downton Abbey: A Moorland Holiday

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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 Minkie Spiro. Originally broadcast: 25 December 2014, ITV.

The family holiday at Brancaster Castle, a stately home hired by Rose’s parents-in-law for the grouse season. Meanwhile, Violet tracks down the missing wife of her friend Prince Kuragin, Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes make plans for their retirement, and Anna is languishing in prison. 

When is it set? We begin in September 1924 and then jump to Christmas (which is a white one). That means some of this episode is set precisely 90 years to the day before its broadcast.

Where is it set? A local prison. Downton Abbey. Downton train station. The English countryside. Brancaster Castle and its estate (in reality: Alnwick Castle in Northumberland). Violet’s house. A house Mr Carson wants to buy. Isobel’s house. York.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Stowell (Alun Armstrong) is Lord Sinderby’s butler who we meet when our characters go to stay at Brancaster. He’s a bitter, rude man who takes against Tom Branson and lords it over Thomas Barrow. When Mary sees what an oaf he is, she asks Thomas to take him down a peg or two. He plots to embarrass Stowell in front of everyone, then tricks him into revealing some sensitive information about Lord Sinderby. This causes Stowell big problems and puts him in his place.
* The long-missing Princess Irina Kuragin (Jane Lapotaire) has been finally found. Violet arranges for her to come to Yorkshire to be reunited with her husband. Sadly she’s rather rude and ungrateful.
* Atticus has been offered a job in New York, so he and Rose plan to leave the country.
* Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode) is a friend of a friend of Atticus’s who comes along to the grouse shoot. He’s a car fanatic and strikes up a connection with Mary.
* Henry and Atticus’s mutual friend is called Charlie Rogers (Sebastian Dunn).
* Bertie Pelham (Harry Hadden-Paton) has been the agent of the Brancaster Castle estate for 18 months and is a genial, good-natured bloke. The old Lord Hexham, a previous owner of Brancaster, was his father’s second cousin. But Bertie is a working man. He meets Edith at the shoot and they become friendly.
* Diana Clark (Alice Patten) is a woman who shows up unannounced at Brancaster with a small child. Lord Sinderby is shaken to his core to see her… because the boy is his secret love child. Rose immediately twigs what’s going on and pretends that Diana is a friend of hers, saving her father-in-law from embarrassment and making sure his wife doesn’t find out about the indiscretion. Lord S is now much more predisposed towards Rose.
* Andy, the footman hired for a week in the preceding episode, is given a full-time job. He replaces Mr Bates, who during the episode does a runner out of the country…

Best bits:
* Immaculately dressed Mary visits Anna in a grim, dank prison.
* Mr Bates says he would cut his own arm off if it helped Anna. “Oh, I don’t think that’d be sensible,” quips Thomas Barrow. “We can’t have you wobbly at both ends…”
* Mary and Edith say goodbye to the children before leaving for Brancaster Castle. “Come to Mummy,” says Mary to her son, George. “Come to… me,” says Edith to her secret-daughter-who’s-posing-as-a-ward Marigold.
* Rose wants both sides of her family to use their Christian names. Her Jewish father-in-law points out that his name is not Christian.
* Mary dresses in an absolutely gorgeous frock and jewellery that accentuates her Louise Brooks bob.
* With the family away, Mrs Patmore plans a cosy downstairs dinner for the senior servants still at Downton. Carson is put-out to learn that young Daisy will be joining them. “If that thought’s too democratically overpowering,” says Mrs P, “you can share what I’ve made for the housemaids.”
* Robert kindly, gently lets Edith know that’s realised Marigold is her daughter. Now, everyone within the family except Mary is in on the secret.
* Poor Isobel is having doubts about marrying Lord Merton because his sons have been so resentful towards her. A snooty letter from the dickwad eldest son doesn’t help matters.
* Tom, Mary and Edith share a very moving moment when they hold hands and remember the late Sybil.
* Mr Carson asks Mrs Hughes to marry him. Aww. “I thought you’d never ask,” she says.

Worst bits:
* Poor Anna has been locked up on remand because, two years after a man’s death, a witness has come forward and identified her as being on the same street at the time. Later in the episode, we hear that the witness is now having doubts. No shit.
* “Well, Bates was found innocent,” says Cora over tea, pointing out that the same kind of plot is being done twice. “No doubt Anna will be too.”
* Oh, the murder-mystery plot gets even clunkier. We learn that when Anna was a child, her step-father abused her – so she threatened him with a knife and cut him in self-defense. And the incident is now being used by the police as ‘evidence’ that she killed Mr Green. This backstory hasn’t even been hinted at in any of the previous 42 episodes.
* Then… frustrated that his wife is locked up in prison, Mr Bates tells the police *he* killed Mr Green and then flees to Ireland. His sacrifice means that Anna is released on bail, but no one at Downton believes Bates did it. So Molesley and Miss Baxter take it upon themselves to prove his innocence. They visit 60 or 70 pubs in York and find a landlord who will testify that Mr Bates was there on the day Mr Green was killed. So Mr B returns. This entire storyline feels so arbitrary.
* Branson finally moves to Boston. He’s been planning this for about 700 episodes now.
* “I don’t know if I’ve ever told you that I have a sister,” says Mrs Hughes to Mr Carson, one of her closest friends and colleagues who she’s known for decades.

Real history:
* At Christmas, the household sing the traditional Christmas carols God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen and O Come, All Ye Faithful.
* Mary then sings Silent Night with Edith accompanying her on the piano. It was written by Franz Xaver Gruber in 1818 using lyrics by Joseph Mohr.

Upstairs, Downton: Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes plan to buy and run an B&B once their time at Downton is over. In Upstairs, Downstairs, Mr Hudson and Mrs Bridges make similar plans.

Maggie Smithism of the week: Robert says he’s happy his mother has come to see him off at the train station. “Why must you always talk of me as if I were a salmon who laid my eggs in the gravel and then swam back to the sea?” she replies.

Mary’s men: With the long-running Mary/Charles/Tony love triangle now put to bed, we’re into a new phase of Mary’s love life… A last-minute guest at the Brancaster shoot is a man called Henry Talbot. He’s ‘chumed’ with Mary on the shoot and asks if her husband is one of the other guns. “No,” she says, “but my late husband was quite good at it. In the end.” Their frosty dialogue is played with an underlying attraction. She seems quite disappointed when he leaves.

Review: Probably Downton Abbey’s least enjoyable Christmas special. There are plenty of nice scenes and subplots, but it doesn’t have much cohesion to it. There’s also a hackneyed storyline about a bitter butler who gets his comeuppance, a dull comedy subplot about some broth, and a limp climax to Prince Kuragin’s arc. The time shifts are slightly strange too. The Brancaster holiday makes up the episode’s first two-thirds, then we skim through a few months and it’s suddenly Christmas back at Downton. But the biggest issue, sadly, is the sense that the show is now circling back and redoing the same type of stories.

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 5 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 Michael Engler. Originally broadcast: 9 November 2014, ITV.

Rose is preparing to marry Atticus in London, but their respective parents are causing problems… Also, Edith’s secret daughter is now living at Downton, Robert helps Mrs Patmore, and Tom decides to move to America. 

When is it set? 1924, before the grouse season. The local village’s war memorial is unveiled on the 25th of the month, soon after Rose’s wedding.

Where is it set? Downton Abbey and the local village. Violet’s house. Grantham House in London. Scotland Yard. The Hornby Hotel. Rules restaurant. St James’s Park. The Sinderbys’ London residence. Caxton Hall Registry Office. An illegal gambling den.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Andy (Michael P Fox) is a footman hired temporarily while the family are in London. Thomas takes a shine to him, but Denker spies an opportunity to rip him off. She coerces Andy into going to a gambling den near Shaftesbury Avenue and he loses a fortune. Later, Thomas smells a rat and insists on coming along when the pair go again…
* Basil Shute (Darren Machin) runs the gambling den. Thomas soon twigs what’s going on: Denker receives free drinks if she brings dupes with cash to the club. So Thomas wins back the money that Andy lost, then deliberately drops Denker in the shit with Basil.
* A woman (Sophie Cosson) bursts into Atticus’s hotel room, dips her dress off her shoulder, then walks out. He’s bemused by the incident, but the next day Rose is sent some photos of it… She’s devastated and confronts Atticus, but Tom Branson suggests that her haughty father-in-law arranged the sting in order to scuttle the wedding. Lord Flintshire denies he was involved.
* Rose marries Atticus, becoming Lady Rose Aldridge.
* One of the guests at the wedding reception, Lady Manville (Sarah Crowden), compliments Robert and Cora for putting on a brave face as their ward marries a Jew. “I wonder if you remember that my father was Jewish?” says Cora.

Best bits:
* Rose shows off some outfits to Cora, Mary, Isobel and Violet. The costume design on this series really is excellent.
* The bickering between Violet’s servants – butler Spratt and maid Denker – is likeable nonsense played by two actors with comic talent.
* Robert says there’s something about Marigold (who’s his granddaughter, even though he doesn’t know it). “A sense of déjà vu. I can’t quite put my finger on it…” Later, the truth dawns on him – she reminds him of Michael Gresgon – and he lets Cora know he’s worked it out. “Just tell me if I’m wrong,” he says. She says he’s not.
* Lady Flintshire meets her future son-in-law, Atticus. “What a peculiar name,” she says before walking off.
* While in London, Anna is asked to visit Scotland Yard. When she arrives she’s shocked to discover it’s so she can take part in a police line-up.
* Mary tells Tom that she doesn’t want him to leave the country… because she’ll then be left alone with her sister, Edith. “When you read in the paper I’m on trial for murder, it’ll be your fault.”
* Having had her eyes opened to art and history and education, Daisy declares she’s going to move to London. Mrs Patmore is clearly devastated at the idea of losing her surrogate daughter. (Daisy later changes her mind.)
* Lord Flintshire works out that the sting operation on Atticus was arranged by Rose’s mother – so he confronts her. She’s bitter because the couple have lost all their money and fears that marrying a Jew will further damage Rose’s future.
* Carson solemnly tells Violet that Denker is unwell… then we cut to the servants’ hall and see that she’s blind drunk!
* The police arrive at Grantham House and arrest Anna for murder!

Worst bits:
* Tom’s had a letter from his cousin in Boston, Massachusetts, who sells cars but wants to move into farming equipment and has asked Tom to be his business partner. He’ll stay at Downton until Christmas but then leave. The drawn-out subplot of Tom’s potential emigration to America has become very tedious.
* The policeman Vyner returns. He’s now discovered that the murdered Mr Green was not that nice a man after all. He’d attacked several women, some of whom have now come forward. Mr Green, a lowly servant, died two years ago. Is it really that believable that the Met would still be investigating his death in a road accident?
* Likewise, the police say a second witness has now come forward and says that whoever was arguing with Mr Green moments before he fell under a bus was shorter than Green. That witness must have a very good memory. He somehow identifies Anna as the killer.

Real history:
* When asked a racist question by Lady Flintshire – “Do you have any English blood?” – the Jewish Lord Sinderby tells her that his wife’s family arrived in England during the reign of Richard III (1452-1485).
* Mary takes Rose, Tom and Edith to Rules. As Edith points out, it’s the restaurant where she and Michael Gregson first had dinner together (during series three).
* Mr Molesley takes Miss Baxter and Daisy to the Wallace Collection, an art gallery in central London that opened in 1900.
* Having been a diplomat there, Lord Flintshire isn’t sure how much longer ‘British India’ has to go. Isobel mentions “that terrible Amritsar business.” On 13 April 1919, in Punjab, protesters and pilgrims were fired upon by British Indian Army troops commanded by Colonel Reginald Dyer (1864-1927). Hundreds were killed; maybe as many as a thousand. Flintshire says it was an unfortunate incident order by a foolish man. The aloof Lord Sinderby can’t agree: he reckons Dyer was just doing his duty.
* A drunk Denker sings It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, a song written by Jack Judge. He came up with it on 30 January 1912 for a five-shilling bet and it was performed at a music hall the following night.
* Violet says that she attended the wedding of the Earl and Countess of Rosebery, which was held on 20 March 1878.
* At the unveiling of the war memorial in Downton village, Carson recites the Ode of Remembrance (“We will remember them…”), which is taken from For the Fallen, a 1914 poem by Laurence Binyon.

Maggie Smithism of the week: “My dear, love is a far more dangerous motive than dislike.”

Mary’s men: Her former suitor Tony Gillingham shows up at the wedding reception and brings Mabel Lane Fox with him. They’re getting married in December.

Doggie! Isis has died between episodes. Sniff! Robert employs a local mason to carve her gravestone. (This gives him the idea to mark Mrs Patmore’s nephew’s sacrifice. He can’t be included on the war memorial because he was shot for cowardice, so Robert pays for a separate plaque.)

Review: The penultimate season comes to an end enjoyably enough.

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 5 episode 7

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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 Philip John. Originally broadcast: 2 November 2014, ITV.

Edith has fled to London, so her mother chases after her. Meanwhile, Rose agrees to marry Atticus, while Isobel announces she’s to marry Lord Merton – but in each case there’s resistance from the prospective in-laws. 

When is it set? We begin the day after the preceding episode ended, so we’re in mid 1924.

Where is it set? Downton train station. Downton Abbey and the estate. The Bateses’ cottage. The offices of Edith’s publishing company. A London teashop. Violet’s house.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Although she herself is barely seen, it’s decided that young Marigold will now live at Downton Abbey as Edith’s ward. Only Edith, Cora, Violet and Rosamund know that the girl is Edith’s daughter.

Best bits:
* Cora’s indignation when she finally learns that she has a third grandchild. She’s furious that Violet and Rosamund kept the secret from her and says she’ll never trust her mother-in-law again.
* Blimey, Mary looks amazing when dolled up with her 1920s flapper frock and bob-cut hairdo.
* Arrogant Lord Sinderby is asking Cora whether she minds having a different religion from her father – implying, incorrectly, that she’s embarrassed by her Jewish roots. She points out that, unlike his family, they didn’t anglicize their surname.
* Violet is upset when Isobel announces her engagement. Mary assumes it’s jealousy, but it’s because Violet will miss having her pal around.
* Charles Blake invites Mary to the cinema and actor Julian Ovenden pronounces the word in the old-fashioned way: ‘kinema’.
* A fun bit of farce: Cora has convinced Edith to return to Downton with Marigold, but they don’t want any of the family to know about it. But when they pull into the train station, who should be waiting on the platform but Mary. There’s then some business to make sure she doesn’t see the child. (For the coincidence to make sense, the trains to and from London must use the same platform.)
* Mr Molesley kills two birds with one stone when he engineers a visit to the farm of Daisy’s father-in-law: Mr Mason boosts a depressed Daisy’s confidence, while Mr Molesley takes Miss Baxter along to cheer her up.

Worst bits:
* Mrs Drewe arrives at Downton to tell Cora all about Edith’s secret daughter… and tells her in a scene that we don’t see. Mrs Drewe isn’t even in the episode. Downton Abbey enjoys its off-screen storytelling a bit too much.
* Mrs Hughes tells Mary about the railway ticket that could prove Mr Bates’s innocence… in the hallway, which allows Miss Baxter to eavesdrop.
* “Have you decided at least whether you’re leaving?” Rosamund asks Tom Branson, who has been occasionally mooting moving to America for about 27 years now.
* Lord Merton’s twatty son *somehow* gets a return invitation to a Downton dinner and yet again acts like a moron.

Real history:
* Mr Molesley mentions William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1847-48 novel Vanity Fair.
* Daisy has been reading the newspaper. “Mr MacDonald seems to limp from crisis to crisis,” she says. “They were going to do so much when they came in, the first Labour government. And now I doubt if they’ll last a year.” Her prediction is right: Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald left Downing Street on 4 November.
* Mary goes to see a film starring American actor John Barrymore (1882-1942).

Upstairs, Downton: The scene at a cinema recalls a similar moment in the Upstairs Downstairs episode News From the Front (1974).

Maggie Smithism of the week: When Mary is cruel about her sister, Violet says, “My dear, a lack of compassion can be as vulgar as an excess of tears.”

Mary’s men: Her suitors Charles and Tony are still staying at Downton after last episode; Mary’s love rival Mabel Lane Fox is there too. Charles and Mabel are plotting to push Tony away from Mary. He says he can’t let Mary go but won’t say why. (It’s because they slept together.) So Charles tells Mary that she needs to release him more clearly. A few days later, Charles learns that he’s being posted to a trade delegation to Poland and will be gone for several months, so he asks Mary to come to London: he has an idea. They go to the cinema, then stage a snog as Tony and Mabel walk past. Tony finally gets the message and gives up hopes of a life with Mary.

Doggie! Isis lies docile next to Robert’s chair or in front of the fire, and Robert is getting increasingly concerned for her health. Cora wonders whether the pooch might be pregnant. But sadly no: Robert takes Isis to the vet and learns she’s got cancer. She’s not expected to live long… Robert and Cora let Isis sleep in their bed that night.

Review: Death, murder, anguish, heartache, war, rejection, loneliness… Downton’s done them all. Yet the imminent death of a dog is the most touching storyline yet.

Next episode…

A Good Day to Die Hard (2013, John Moore)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

John McClane heads to Moscow when his son is arrested and thrown into prison…

Source material: This is the first Die Hard film that isn’t based on pre-existing material. Initially, the movie was going to be called Die Hard 24/7 and there were rumours it was to be a crossover with TV show 24. John McClane would have teamed up with Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer. Surely that would have been more entertaining than what we ended up with…

John McClane: He’s still a cop in New York and still separated from ex-wife Holly. Hearing that his son is in trouble, John flies to Moscow, where everyone is either a criminal or a moron and the authorities show no interest in terrorists running amok. He makes idiotic quips as he blithely ignores huge destruction and untold deaths, and for the first time the character seems uncaring and arrogant. Bruce Willis gives the most dour, lifeless and bored performance of his career. Look into the actor’s eyes and you can see him daydreaming about the fee.

Regulars:
* Jack Gennero (Jai Courtney) is John McClane’s 30-ish son, who was known as John Jnr when we saw him as a small boy in the original Die Hard. Like his mother in that film and his sister in Die Hard 4.0, the character doesn’t want to use John’s surname; father and son also haven’t spoken for a few years, which explains why John is unaware that Jack is now a CIA operative working in Russia. But when news reaches New York that Jack has been imprisoned, John flies over to see what’s what… For a while, actor Jai Courtney seemed to be specialising in turgid franchise films: he’s also in Terminator Genisys and Suicide Squad. And he’s terrible here, turning a character we should care about into a petulant brat. Why the CIA would ever trust this whiny, quick-to-tantrum man-child with daddy issues is difficult to fathom.
* John’s daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), returns from the previous film for a cameo.

Villain: There’s a cack-handed plot about a Russian billionaire called Yuri Komarov (Sebastian Koch) who has a secret file that could incriminate corrupt politician Viktor Chagarin (Sergei Kolesnikov), so Chagarin’s henchman Aik (Radivoje Bukvić) breaks Komarov out of prison in order to get the file. If you manage to pay attention until the third act, you discover that the file never existed and Komarov is the real bad guy. Or something. Also involved in the story is Komarov’s daughter, Irina (Yulia Snigir), who’s there simply to provide a shot for the trailer when she unzips her motorcycle leathers to reveal her underwear.

Music: The score by Marco Beltrami is actually not that bad. It’s busy and powerful and steals the interest during many of the film’s 376 action scenes.

Review: A poster for this film contained the strapline ‘Yippie ki-yay, Mother Russia’. Not one single element in the movie itself even approaches that level of smartness or self-awareness. Watching A Good Day to Die Hard is a truly dreadful, depressing experience. It seems to want to be a Bourne film: urgent, visceral action; clipped, terse dialogue scenes; and driving incidental music. But it lacks the intelligence, panache and interesting characters that made those early Bourne adventures so engaging, and instead comes off more like a straight-to-DVD Steven Seagal flick. There *is* a plot – we know this because there’s one scene after 55 minutes where Jack explains it to John. There’s also a plot twist – late on, one character kills another and we’re meant to be impressed by the script’s Usual Suspects-esque sleight of hand. However, the film is directed by John Moore (who’d previously made the appalling remake of The Omen). He’s not interested in wit or character development or depth or subtext or suspense. He prefers computer-game carnage carried off without any style or story logic or consequence. “It’s going to be loud,” smirks one of the bland villains just before the first of several thousand explosions – it’s also going to be sensationally dull. This is a crass, classless, joyless, artless sequel and the worst film ever made that comes from an otherwise decent series.

One… oh, I don’t know… thing that blows up out of 10

Die Hard 4.0 (2007, Len Wiseman)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Note: In North America, this film is called Live Free or Die Hard. But it was thought that the rest of the world wouldn’t get the pun on New Hampshire’s state motto (‘Live free or die’). The replacement title is arguably a better fit, given the movie’s subject matter, and director Len Wiseman and star Bruce Willis have both said they prefer it.

When cyber-terrorists take control of every Government computer system in America, New York cop John McClane teams up with a young hacker to stop them…

Source material: The genesis of this movie lies a magazine article by John Carlin called A Farewell to Arms, which was published in 1997 and investigated cyber-terrorism. Its research and ideas were then used as the basis of a film script called WW3.com, but production was postponed due to the 9/11 attacks. A few years later, it was dusted down and rejigged as a Die Hard sequel.

John McClane: It’s been 12 years since we last saw our hero. In that time, he’s lost both his wife and his hair. He also has an edgy relationship with his now-grown-up daughter. Bruce Willis plays the role with noticeably less sparkle than in the previous films: this is a middle-aged, world-weary, grouchy John McClane.

Regulars:
* Lucy Gennero (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) was last seen as a small child in the first film. She’s now in her mid-20s and, like her mother two decades earlier, is refusing to use dad John’s surname. She crops up early in the film when her father warns off her boob-grabby boyfriend, then returns much later when the villain takes her hostage. It’s a good, spirited performance from Winstead.

Villain: Nestling somewhere between the first Die Hard’s icy-cool Hans Gruber and the third movie’s OTT Simon, Thomas Gabriel is one of those bad guys who’s so well-funded you wonder why he’s bothering. Seriously, his operation – dozens of goons and nerds, thousands of dollars’ worth of high-powered computers, helicopters, cars, a Knight Rider-style techno-truck – must have cost an absolute fortune. Why doesn’t he just retire to an island somewhere? Well, joking aside, his motivation is that no one listened when he warned the authorities that the US was open to a crippling cyber-attack. So he’s decided to do it himself to teach them a lesson. Timothy Olyphant is suitably intense in the role, and also has a couple of dry one-liners. His chief sidekick is Mai Linh (Maggie Q), a sexy Asian chick who can beat people up. (Was this film written by men, by any chance?)

Music: The unremarkable score is by Marco Beltrami. (Michael Kamen, who worked on the opening trilogy, had died in 2003.) Credence Clearwater Revival’s 1969 song Fortunate Son is heard on a radio in one scene – John is disappointed that his young friend Matthew doesn’t know it.

Review: The Die Hard series moves into the 21st century. The world has changed since John McClane’s last outing, so we now get a plot built around cyber-terrorism. There are lots of computer screens and keyboards and servers and cables and primitive smart phones and Red Bull-gulping hackers listening to loud nu-metal music (and never using a mouse). All that coupled with a race-against-the-clock storyline means the whole movie is reminiscent of TV show 24, especially in the way that computers can basically do *anything* the plot requires. Later on, we also meet Warlock (Kevin Smith), an angry geek living in his mother’s basement surrounded by Star Wars toys. It’s a fun world to drop the old-fashioned John McClane into. He feels out-of-place and is far from comfortable with computers and modern technology. It’s a case of PC vs McClane, you might say if you were stretching for a pun that doesn’t really work. But the movie also has a huge sense of Hollywood scale. Outdoor scenes often feature masses of extras and wide-open spaces, while the stunts and general carnage are ridiculously overblown. Plausibility and the laws of physics are thrown out of the plate-glass window as cars fly through the air and crash into helicopters. With such an action-movie budget to play with, in fact, it’s a shame that so many dialogue scenes in vehicles are shot against unconvincing greenscreens. But the spine of the story is another buddy-movie team-up. This time, John McClane’s companion is 20-something whizzkid Matthew Farrell (Justin Long) and they’re an entertaining partnership. The age difference is used for several gags and characters beats (John is “a Timex watch in a digital world”), while the two actors have chemistry. And for all its flashy pyrotechnics, Die Hard 4.0 is actually about something: the film has comments to make about society’s overreliance on technology. (In a neat gag, a Terminator action figure – a symbol of cold, soulless, artificial intelligence – falls off a shelf and starts a bomb.) It might lack the bite of the first three films – it’s a 12 certificate, for example, so the dialogue is not as colourful – but Die Hard 4.0 zips along and is very enjoyable hokum.

Seven fire sales out of 10

Downton Abbey: series 5 episode 6

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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 Philip John. Originally broadcast: 26 October 2014, ITV.

Edith discovers that Michael Gregson is dead. Also, Thomas Barrow needs help, Robert is still annoyed with his wife, and Mr Bates gets the wrong end of the stick…

When is it set? Robert has the hump with Cora for flirting with another man so not much time has passed since the last episode. It’s summer 1924.

Where is it set? Downton Abbey. Violet’s house. Prince Kuragin’s bedsit and a hairdressers in York. Dr Clarkson’s office. A cottage that Mrs Patmore is considering buying with an inheritance. The grounds of Caningford Grange, the estate of Lord Sinderby. A hotel in London.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Violet has a new lady’s maid called Denker (Sue Johnston). She’s not getting along with butler Spratt, though. The two disagree over household routines.
* It’s finally confirmed that Michael Gregson – who we last saw in an episode set two years before this one – is dead. He was murdered by Nazis during the Munich Putsch and only now have his remains been discovered and identified. Edith has inherited his publishing company.
* The parents of Rose’s new friend Atticus Aldridge appear for the first time. Lord Sinderby (James Faulkner) seems cold and distant, but Lady Siderby (Penny Downie) is nicer.

Best bits:
* Having received a telegram saying that the editor of Michael’s magazine is on his way to Downton, Edith spends most of the day in utter dread: she knows it must be the confirmation of Michael’s death.
* Mary says she’s genuinely sad to hear about Michael. “Though what he saw in Edith…” she can’t resist adding.
* Mr Bates finds a contraceptive – a device Anna is actually hiding for Mary – and jumps to the wrong conclusion. He assumes Anna doesn’t want a child with him because she thinks he murdered Mr Green.
* The incongruity of the Dowager Lady Grantham siting in a dingy bedsit and holding a glass like it’s radioactive.
* Having learnt that Michael died a long time ago, a distraught Edith tries to visit her daughter. But the girl’s guardian – who doesn’t know that Edith is the mother – refuses to let her in. Actress Laura Carmichael does pained so well. You really feel for her. Later in the episode, Edith is distraught as her family get on with their lives: planning a picnic, trying out a new hair style… So she decides to leave Downton without saying where she’s going. And she takes daughter Marigold with her…
* Cora asks an angry Robert to return to their bedroom. (He’s been sleeping in his dressing room.) But he’s stubborn and refuses. “Very well,” she says. “If you can honestly say you have never let a flirtation get out of hand since we married, if you have never given a woman the wrong impression, then by all means stay away. Otherwise, I expect you back in my room tonight.”
* Thomas Barrow has been looking ill for several episodes and now reveals why: he’s been using a barbaric medicine designed to ‘cure’ him of being gay. He asks for help from Miss Baxter, who of course he’s often treated very badly. But she’s a decent person so puts that aside and takes him to the doctor. Dr Clarkson tells Thomas that the treatment is just saline, but he’s feeling rotten because the needle was infected. Thomas also reveals that he’s tried electrotherapy, all to try to change him; to make him more like other men. “Well, I’ll not be coy and pretend I don’t understand,” says Dr Clarkson. “Nor do I blame you. But there is no drug, no electric shock, that will achieve what you want.”
* Mary has her hair restyled as a bob-cut a la Louise Brooks. Wowzers.
* Mr Bates tells Anna what happened the day Mr Green died. He went to York, then bought a return train ticket for London… But he didn’t get on the train. He knew that if he saw Green he’d kill him. He also explains why he kept the train ticket. It was proof that he *didn’t* go to London (ie, if he’d travelled it would have been torn in half).
* Violet sighs when she learns that Rose’s new boyfriend is Jewish. “There’s always something, isn’t there?”

Worst bits:
* Mary learns that two friends are to take part in a nearby point-to-point race and says she might join them. Anna then has to ask the plot-hole-covering questions. How can they take part when they don’t ‘follow the hunt’? Mary says they must have wangled it somehow. Are ladies allowed to race with the gentlemen? They changed it just before the war.

Real history:
* “And was it this Herr Hitler?” asks Cora when the news about Michael’s death reaches Downton. “Apparently,” says Robert. “At least his gang of thugs. During the so-called Bierkeller Putsch in Munich.” The putsch – a failed coup led by Adolf Hitler – took place on 8-9 November 1923. Cora says that Hitler has been locked up for five years, but Robert has heard that he won’t serve anything like that. (He was in prison for nine months.)
* Marie Stopes’s family-planning book Married Love (1918) features again.
* Daisy is still studying, even though her tutor Miss Bunting has left. She’s now onto the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1714).
* Upon seeing Mary’s daring new hair, an impressed Isobel says, “Pola Negri comes to Yorkshire!” Negri (1897-1987) was a movie actor of the silent era and the first European star to transfer to Hollywood.

Upstairs, Downton: The point-to-point scenes are very reminiscent of the Upstairs Downstairs episode The Bolter (1973), in which James and Hazel went on a hunting weekend.

Maggie Smithism of the week: When Robert says a grieving Edith needs time to think, Violet says, “Oh, all this endless thinking. It’s very overrated. I blame the war. Before 1914, nobody thought about anything at all.”

Mary’s men: Both Charles and Tony are at the point-to-point. Mary’s love rival Mabel Lane Fox also shows up – she and Charles are trying to convince Tony to be with Mabel, so that Mary is then free for Charles… 

Doggie! While the family discuss some planned renovations, Cora spots that Isis is lying on the floor looking very listless. She wonders if she’s ill; Mary suggests she’s pregnant. The pooch doesn’t improve.

Review: Poor Michael Gregson. He was a fun presence in the show for a few episodes, then the mystery of what happened to him has dragged on for so long. 

Next episode…