My 75 favourite films of the 2010s

To commemorate the end of the decade 2010-2019 (any word yet on what we’re calling it?!), here is a list of my favourite movies from the last 10 years.

It’s a very personal selection, based on gut instinct and emotional reactions. There are undoubtedly plenty of fine films that haven’t made the cut, but these are the 75 that have given me – subjectively speaking – the most amount of pleasure and have impressed me the most. (Why 75? That’s just how many I jotted down on a shortlist.)

I’ve listed them alphabetically, but I’ve also picked out a top 10. Have I missed off your favourite?

TOP 10 CHOICE: The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011, Steven Spielberg)

THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN

The finest animated film there’s ever been. A complete artificial world is created in CGI, and repeated viewings are a treat because you continually spot new things in the background of each shot. But, crucially, there’s real heart behind this movie too. You soon forget about the technology and instead get swept up in the story and charmed by the sheer talent behind it. The plot is simple but smart, with clearly defined characters. There’s wit, whimsy, danger, plenty of visual gags and madcap action – in other words, it’s very Steven Spielberg.

TOP 10 CHOICE: The Aeronauts (2019, Tom Harper)

the-aeronauts

A late entry, as I only saw this film a few weeks ago – but it was a magical experience. Watching it on my own on a cold Tuesday evening in an Everyman cinema in Crystal Palace, I was so enraptured that I felt like a child. The screen seemed enormous, I had a perfect view – level, central, not too close, not too far away – and I was totally caught up in the spectacle and the drama and the joy of a great movie. It’s a fictionalised account of a real-life scientific balloon accent in the 1860s, so this a story about reaching for the heavens in more ways than one. It’s stirring and sentimental and touching and full of wonder, while there’s a very good cast, tremendous incidental music, and a beautiful combination of cinematography and visual effects.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013, Declan Lowney)

Attack the Block (2011, Joe Cornish)

Avengers: Endgame (2019, Anthony & Joe Russo)

Avengers: Infinity War (2018, Anthony & Joe Russo)

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018, Drew Goddard)

Baby Driver (2017, Edgar Wright)

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014, Alejandro González Iñárritu)

TOP 10 CHOICE: Blade Runner 2049 (2017, Denis Villeneuve)

BR2049

Producing a sequel to a classic 35 years after the fact was something of a risk. Ridley Scott, the director of the first Blade Runner, had himself recently made two follow-ups to his other sci-fi masterpiece, Alien (1979), and both fell a very long way short of that movie’s seductive terror. Thankfully, Blade Runner 2049 is *at least* the equal of the 1982 antecedent. Made with an understanding of the original’s power but also with a distinct voice by director Denis Villeneuve, it’s a big film, a difficult film at times, but an engrossing and hugely rewarding experience.

Bone Tomahawk (2015, S Craig Zahler)

Bridge of Spies (2015, Steven Spielberg)

The Cabin in the Woods (2012, Drew Goddard)

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011, Joe Johnston)

TOP 10 CHOICE: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014, Anthony & Joe Russo)

captainamerica_wintersoldier16_1020.0

The decade’s finest superhero movie – and this has been a decade with a lot of superhero movies. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo make sure each element of the film is as sharp as it can be: it’s often funny, it’s often exciting, the story has a bit of substance, tension is built effectively, the incidental music is terrific, and the action scenes are sensational. There’s intrigue, espionage and mistrust. There’s wit, pathos and drama. There’s action, fun and Christopher Nolan-style theatricality.

Creed (2015, Ryan Coogler)

Crimson Peak (2015, Guillermo del Toro)

The Dark Knight Rises (2012, Christopher Nolan)

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014, Matt Reeves)

Deadpool (2016, Tim Miller)

Deadpool 2 (2018, David Leitch)

The Death of Stalin (2018, Armando Iannucci)

Django Unchained (2012, Quentin Tarantino)

Drive (2011, Nicolas Winding Refn)

Dunkirk (2017, Christopher Nolan)

TOP 10 CHOICE: Easy A (2010, Will Gluck)

911160 - EASY A

A loving homage to the kind of teen comedies made by John Hughes in the 1980s, this drily funny and very smart film stars a terrific Emma Stone as a schoolgirl who becomes notorious after a rumour circulates about her sexual appetite. Made with both a real affection for those great old 80s movies and a modern freshness, Easy A also has two of the greatest ‘movie parents’ you could ever hope for: Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci’s open-minded and carefree Rosemary and Dill. (No, honestly, those are their names.)

Evil Dead (2013, Fede Álvarez)

Ex Machina (2015, Alex Garland)

Fast & Furious 5 (2011, Justin Jin)

The Final Girls (2015, Todd Strauss-Schulson)

Gravity (2013, Alfonso Cuarón)

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014, James Gunn)

Halloween (2018. David Gordon Green)

Happy Death Day (2017, Christopher Landon)

The Hateful Eight (2015, Quentin Tarantino)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013, Peter Jackson)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012, Peter Jackson)

The Hunger Games (2012, Gary Ross)

Inception (2010, Christopher Nolan)

Interstellar (2014, Christopher Nolan)

Iron Man 3 (2013, Shane Black)

Joker (2019, Todd Philips)

La La Land (2016, Damien Chazelle)

The Lego Movie (2014, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller)

Logan (2017, James Mangold)

The Lone Ranger (2013, Gore Verbinski)

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, George Miller)

The Martian (2015, Ridley Scott)

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011, Brad Bird)

Mr Holmes (2015, Bill Condon)

The Nice Guys (2016, Shane Black)

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019, Quentin Tarantino)

The Post (2017, Steven Spielberg)

TOP 10 CHOICE: Robin Hood (2010, Ridley Scott)

robin_hood_image_02

Arguably (and I’m going to argue it) the most underrated film of the last 10 years, this kind of passed by without many people getting all that excited. The most newsworthy aspect of its release was lead actor Russell Crowe throwing a tantrum in a publicity interview because it was suggested that his ‘Nottinghamshire’ accent was perhaps not 100-per-cent authentic. (In truth, it’s not even *one*-per-cent authentic.) But that’s just a blemish. Essentially Robin Hood: The Origin Story, this movie ticks the usual boxes – the Crusades, King John, Marian, the sidekicks – but also weaves Robin’s story into a tapestry that involves palace intrigue, civil rights and a coming war. Beautiful to look at, well cast, exciting, funny, and with a fascinating backstory informing everything, this deserves to be much more liked.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016, Gareth Edwards)

Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010, Edgar Wright)

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011, Guy Ritchie)

TOP 10 CHOICE: Skyfall (2012, Sam Mendes)

Skyfall is biggest earning film in UK

The best James Bond film of the decade (regrettably there have only been two) is tremendous entertainment, full of vim and zip and energy. It’s also an engaging character story that weaves Bond’s past with that of his boss, M. “Where are we going?” asks M at one point. “Back in time,” replies Bond… After the clean slate of Casino Royale and the po-faced Quantum of Solace, this movie gives us a new Moneypenny, a new Q, the return of an Aston Martin DB5, and even a belting title song sung by a large-lunged diva. It’s stylish and confident and slick and a lot of fun.

TOP 10 CHOICE: Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018, Ron Howard)

Solo

This was a huge ask. Huge. To take such a famous and beloved character as Han Solo and *recast* him could have gone catastrophically wrong. Thankfully, both lead actor Alden Ehrenreich and the film as a whole are wonderfully vibrant and entertaining. Being a prequel, simply filling out the spaces between established facts could of course become boring very quickly. Solo, however, has more than enough panache and humour to sidestep the issue. It’s full of vivid characters, exiting sequences, romance and adventure.

Spectre (2015, Sam Mendes)

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017, Jon Watts)

Stan & Ollie (2019, Jon S Baird)

Star Trek Beyond (2016, Justin Lin)

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013, JJ Abrams)

TOP 10 CHOICE: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015, JJ Abrams)

ForceAwakens

This movie looks like Star Wars, it sounds like Star Wars, and it feels like Star Wars. The new generation of characters – courageous Rey, headstrong Finn, dashing Poe, adorable BB-8, villainous Kylo – are charismatic, fun, interesting and worthy successors to Luke, Leia, Han and co. Speaking of those icons, they’re not just meaningless cameos. They’re integral to the story, and are found in instantly interesting situations. The Force Awakens might be a love letter to the first three movies, but it’s still a compelling drama. On a technical level, the film is even more impressive. For a start, it’s just so wonderfully *there*. It feels physical, palpable, with heft and weight and a sense of reality. After the cartoony artifice of the prequels, this makes a geek’s heart sing. It’s my favourite film of the whole decade.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017, Rian Johnson)

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019, JJ Abrams)

Super 8 (2011, JJ Abrams)

T2 Trainspotting (2017, Danny Boyle)

The Theory of Everything (2014, James Marsh)

True Grit (2010, Joel and Ethan Coen)

21 Jump Street (2012, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller)

Unstoppable (2010, Tony Scott)

TOP 10 CHOICE: The World’s End (2013, Edgar Wright)

The World's End

This top-10 choice can be seen as standing in for all of director Edgar Wright’s classy and endlessly enjoyable work this decade; I could easily have chosen Scott Pilgrim or Baby Driver. The World’s End has the usual Wrightian tropes – great cast, huge smarts, laugh-out-loud comedy, a thrilling awareness of popular culture, first-rank cinematography and editing – but it edges the others because of two factors. It’s the finale of a thematic trilogy begun in 2004’s Shaun of the Dead and continued in 2007’s Hot Fuzz, and it caps off the series so superbly. Also, its exploration of nostalgia, for better and worse, really socks home.

X-Men: First Class (2011, Matthew Vaughn)

In summary…

It turns out that 2015 is my favourite year of the decade with 12 films on this list. 2011 and 2017 have nine entries each; 2013 is on eight; 2012 and 2014 are on seven; 2010, 2018 and 2019 on six; and poor 2016 is the weakest showing with just five.

Two directors share the accolade of most films: JJ Abrams and Christopher Nolan, each with four. Anthony & Joe Russo, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright have three each; while the following directors appear on the list twice: Shane Black, Drew Goddard, Justin Lin, Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, Peter Jackson, Ridley Scott and Sam Mendes.

In terms of multiple films from the same series, we have seven Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. The next best-represented franchise is Star Wars with five; then there are four X-Men films and two each from Star Trek, James Bond and the Hobbit series.

The Wicker Tree (2011, Robin Hardy)

the-wicker-tree-brittania-nicol-singer-dress-fire

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

Downton Abbey: Christmas at Downton Abbey

downton-abbey-season-2-9-christmas-episode-matthew-proposes-to-mary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 2 episode 8

Episode 8 Season 2 1

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

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

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

When is it set? April 1919.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 2 episode 7

downton-abbey-season-2-7-episode-7-sybil

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

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by James Strong. Originally broadcast: 30 October 2011, ITV.

Now that the war’s over, Downton Abbey is returning to normal…. Thomas plans to move into black-market profiteering, Matthew has a pleasant surprise, Ethel causes a scene, and Sybil does a runner with the chauffeur… to Gretna Green!

When is it set? A caption at the start says ‘1919’. Lavinia hopes her upcoming wedding will be in April.

Where is it set? The house. A nearby shed where Thomas has stockpiled some secondhand goods. The Swan Inn, a country pub where Mary and Edith find Sybil and Branson. Isobel’s house.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Mr and Mrs Bryant (Kevin McNally and Christine Mackie) are the parents on the late Major Charles Bryant. They come to Downton to see where their son lived when he was injured. Mrs Hughes arranges for former maid Ethel to be there too so she can introduce the Bryants to a grandchild they knew nothing about. Mr B reacts badly.

Best bits:
* The first scene shows a single Army van packing up the last of the hospital equipment and driving off – a neat way of saying that phase of the house’s history is over.
* Robert’s boundary-crossing friendship with maid Jane is nicely done. The story has taken its time to build up speed, then this week he kisses her in a moment of madness. He’s distraught, embarrassed and refuses to accept her resignation: “The fault was entirely mine.”
* At last, Sybil agrees to run away with Branson. “I’ve waited so long to hear those words,” he says. Us too, mate. This storyline has dragged.
* Mary and Edith drive off into the night after Sybil, who’s run off to Gretna Green with Branson. (It brings to mind an episode of sitcom Your Rang, M’Lord? in which two couples dash to Scotland to get married.)

Worst bits:
* We get another example of Downton Abbey’s odd relationship to time. We’re in 1919, so even if it’s only January, the war’s been over for at least six weeks – yet every character acts like it ended yesterday.
* Did anyone have any doubt that Matthew – permanently paralysed after a broken back – would recover fairly quickly? The moment where he surprises Lavina (and himself) by suddenly standing up is rather silly. You half expect him to do a jig and burst into song. There then follows a scene where Dr Clarkson weakly explains why Matthew was misdiagnosed.
* The show is now doing a murder-mystery plot… off-screen and in retrospect. We learnt last week that Vera Bates had died, presumably by suicide. But now there are furtive chats between Bates and Anna where it becomes clear that he might be accused of killing his ex. Clues such as letters and poisons are bandied around, but it all feels very perfunctory.
* We’re told that Sybil is 21 years old. Which means she was 14 in episode one. Blimey.

Real history:
* “Have you seen the boys’ haircuts the women are wearing in Paris,” says Mary when the family discuss how the world is changing. Is the 1920s on its way, by any chance?
* Mr Carson references film star Theda Bara (1885-1955). She starred in over 40 films, most of which are now lost, and was nicknamed the Vamp. Mrs Hughes is surprised Carson knows who she is.
* Thinking Sybil’s ill in bed, Cora says, “The stories of this Spanish flu are too awful.” The disease spread across the globe between 1918 and 1920 and claimed about four per cent of the world population.

Upstairs, Downton: Thomas, a former footman, has to find a new place in the world now that the war is over. In Upstairs, Downstairs, footman Edward leaves Eaton Place after the war – but struggles to earn a living and has to return.

Maggie Smithism of the week: Cora announces that Major Bryant’s parents want to see everyone who knew him when he stayed at Downton. “That lets me out, thank heaven,” says the Dowager.

Mary’s men: Without Mary’s knowledge, Sir Richard asks Anna to spy on her and report back. Being the good sort that she is, Anna says no. Meanwhile, Matthew is struggling with being paralysed – but mysteriously asks Bates what he should do if he feels a ‘tingle’ in his legs. Mary is then given a dilemma when Matthew regains the ability to walk: should she stick with bully Sir Richard or pursue Matthew again? The question is taken out of her hands, however, when the latter announces that he and Lavina will get married. In a few months. At Downton. So Mary – with precious little enthusiasm – agrees to marry Sir Richard in July. He out-right asks her if she’s still in love with Matthew. “Of course not,” she says, unconvincingly.

Doggie! Isis is seen early on, bounding along with Robert as he chats to his wife. (They both ignore the dog. Rotters.)

Review: In many ways, this is prime Downton Abbey. We get high melodrama, stilted dialogue, moving moments, comedy, predictable plot twists, surprising plot twists… It’s good fun.

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 2 episode 6

Episode 6 Season 2 1

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

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Andy Goddard. Originally broadcast: 23 October 2011, ITV.

The household mourn for footman William, Sir Richard makes plans for his married life with Mary, and a man called Patrick Gordon claims to be the heir to Downton and its wealth…

When is it set? Early November 1918.

Where is it set? The house. Isobel’s house. Haxby Park, the nearby stately home that Sir Richard plan to buy. The cottage where Ethel’s living.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Patrick Gordon (Trevor White) is a Canadian serviceman who’s been disfigured in the war and is recuperating at Downton. He claims to be related to the Crawley family and that he spent time with them as a child, but no one can remember him. He then has to spell it out to Edith: he says he’s Patrick, the heir to Downton previously thought drowned on the Titanic. He says he survived the disaster, though with amnesia. He signed up in 1914, then was caught in an explosion at Passendale that brought back his old memories. When the others find out, Matthew immediately twigs that, if the claim is true, he’d no longer be the heir. Robert asks his solicitor to look into the situation, but the findings are inconclusive. So Patrick leaves… (Rather brilliantly, we don’t learn if he was the genuine article or not.)
* New maid Jane is now working at the house, and shares a flirty look or two with Robert. When Robert luncheons alone, Jane serves him and they get to know each other…
* We learn that Major Bryant, the cad who fathered Ethel’s child then didn’t give a stuff, has been killed in the war.

Best bits:
* “That life of changing clothes and killing things and eating them – do you really want it again?” – Isobel suggests that Downton might not return to normal once the war is over.
* Mary and Carson’s relationship is routinely charming: she’s a lady, he’s a servant, but she clearly likes and respects him and he has an avuncular love for her.
* Sir Richard asks Carson to book him on the morning train to London. Carson replies that Mr Bates will be on the same train… The next day, Bates returns from the capital with a scar on his face and Sir Richard comes back late. A day or two later we hear the news that Vera Bates has been found dead. Has one of them killed her?!
* Matthew feels a twinge…

Worst bits:
* Daisy’s sackcloth-and-ashes routine is getting boring now, as is Sybil and Branson’s glacially slow romance.
* Violet’s dialogue can often be the highlight of an episode. You sometimes get the impression that Julian Fellowes spends as much time crafting her acerbic barbs as writing all the other characters put together. But occasionally the metaphors become painfully tortured. This week, Cora says that Isobel is being awkward and “has the bit between her teeth”. Violet replies, “Well, change the bridal. Find a course than needs her more than Downton.” Cora then says Isobel wants to be a martyr. Violet: “We must tempt her with a more enticing scaffold.”
* Edith isn’t sure whether Patrick is the man she was deeply in love with six years previously. Robert is similarly unable to recognise him. Even with an accent that’s changed a bit and a scared face, is this plausible?

Real history:
* Pushing Matthew in his wheelchair, Mary says she’ll have arms like Jack Johnson if she’s not careful. Nicknamed the Galveston Giant, American boxer Johnson (1878-1946) was the first black man to be world heavyweight champion.
* Cora tell us that, “Turkey’s about to capitulate and Robert says Vittorio Veneto will finish off Austria.” The Battle of Vittorio Veneto (24 October-3 November 1918) was an Italian victory that secured the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
* Patrick claims he was pulled out of the water by Fifth Officer Harold Lowe (1882-1944), a real-life officer on the Titanic who was one of the few to return after the ship sank to look for survivors.
*
Branson and Carson discuss European politics, disagreeing over whether Germany will soon be a republic and namechecking American President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924).
* Robert walks into the servants’ hall to announce that the war is over. The ceasefire will commence on the morning of 11 November. At the allotted time, the household gather in the main hall as the clock chimes 11 times…

Upstairs, Downton: There’s a passing reference to European refugees, a piece of real history that Downton Abbey has mostly ignored. The Upstairs, Downstairs episode A Patriotic Offering (1974) saw a family of Belgians come to stay with the Bellamys. Additionally, the First World War ended in the Updown episode Peace Out of Pain (also 1974).

Maggie Smithism of the week: “I don’t dislike him, I just don’t like him, which is quite different.” She’s talking about Sir Richard.

Mary’s men: Sir Richard is hoping to buy – and renovate – a house close to Downton called Haxby Park. He even offers Carson a job as its butler. But Mary is still having doubts, telling Matthew that she needn’t get married. He insists that she do: he wants her to be happy. Later, Mary’s shocked when Sir Richard makes it plain that she’s not to jilt him. “You have given me the power to destroy you,” he points out. “Don’t ever cross me.”

Doggie! Isis is spotted at Robert’s feet in an early scene.

Review: The Patrick subplot is hoary nonsense, but it does put the cat amongst the pigeons. The various reactions to his claim – Edith’s, Robert’s, Mary’s, Matthew’s, Sir Richard’s – are all very interesting.

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 2 episode 5

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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 Brian Kelly. Originally broadcast: 16 October 2011, ITV.

Matthew is badly injured during the big push in France, leading to heartache for both Mary and Lavinia… William is also injured and asks Daisy to marry him, Vera Bates return to stir up trouble, and Mrs Hughes continues to help ex-maid Ethel.

When is it set? A caption says it’s 1918. We start at the Battle of Amiens, which began on 8 August.

Where is it set? Amiens in France. Downton Abbey. The village hospital. Leeds General Infirmary. Sir Richard’s office in London.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* We meet William’s father, Mr Mason (Paul Copley), for the first time when he comes to sit by his son’s hospital bedside.
* Former maid Ethel has had her baby since the previous episode. Major Bryant, the father, couldn’t give a stuff.
* Mrs Hughes interviews a new maid: Jane Moorsum (Clare Calbraith), whose husband died on the Somme. Despite it being unconventional to hire a woman who has a child, she gets the job. She then makes a quick impression on Robert, bursting into the library with brush and bucket in hand.
* Local vicar Reverend Travers (Michael Cochrane) needs some convincing before agreeing to marry William and Daisy.
* William dies at the end of the episode, having recently married Daisy.

Best bits:
* The opening is a dramatic sequence at the Front, full of death and danger. We then suddenly cut to both Daisy and Mary back home. Daisy thinks something’s passed over her grave, while Mary says she feels terribly cold.
* In the middle of the night, a telegram arrives: Matthew has been wounded and is coming to Downton to recuperate. Everyone upstairs and down, it seems, gets up to hear the news.
* The Dowager, against type, argues for ex-servant William having a place at Downton’s recuperation home. But Dr Clarkson says no, so Violet arranges a place at a Leeds hospital instead. (She’s generally less acerbic and more kind this week.)

Worst bits:
* We get some more prime Downton Abbey plotting. For example, events keep happening off-screen. O’Brien drops into conversation that she’s written to Bates’s wife, which is a plot development of huge significance, while the scene of Mary telling Sir Richard about the Mr Pamuk controversy is skipped over.
* Not to belittle any real-life cases (Matthew is fictional, remember) but it’s difficult not to titter when characters talk in euphemisms about how Matthew can’t get it up any more.
* Daisy’s dithering over whether to marry a man she doesn’t love is so boring. He’s dying, love! Have a heart! As William points out, if they do wed she’ll get an army pension.

Real history:
* The first scene is at Amiens. The battle was the opening phase of the Allied offensive that ultimately won the First World War.
* Branson has read in the newspaper than the Bolsheviks have shot Tsar Nicholas II (1868-1918) and his family. “Sometimes the future needs terrible sacrifices,” he says, lamely. The executions took place in the early hours of 17 July.
* Branson also mentions suffrage campaigner Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960).

Upstairs, Downton: Like Matthew, James Bellamy was invalided out of the First World War. It happened in the Upstairs, Downstairs episode Missing Believed Killed (1974).

Maggie Smithism of the week: She uses the phone to call her nephew-in-law Shrimpy, but struggles with the device. “Is this an instrument of communication or torture?” she snaps.

Mary’s men: She’s shocked by the news of Matthew’s injuries and insists on seeing him when he arrives at the hospital. He’s out on morphine, but has ‘probable spinal damage’ – and is permanently paralysed. On top of all that, Mary learns about Vera Bates’s plan to sell the Mr Pamuk story to the press. So she resigns herself to telling fiancée Sir Richard, who agrees to squash the story. He’s not doing it altruistically, though: it’s because it’ll mean he’ll have more power in their marriage. He tricks Vera into selling him the information and signing a confidentiality contract, but he has no intention of publishing. He then announces his and Mary’s engagement in the newspaper, without telling Mary he’s going to, and tells Vera to piss off. Mary, meanwhile, is mopping Matthew’s brow and holding a pan for his vomit.

Review: A downbeat, sombre episode with tears never far from the surface. There’s a grim opening of Matthew and William in the trenches, preparing for the big push, and the horrors of war reach home too. We’re not spared the details and visuals of the men’s injuries.

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 2 episode 4

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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 Brian Kelly. Originally broadcast: 9 October 2011, ITV.

The patients staying at Downton plan a concert party, Isobel feels left out of the management of the house, Sybil and Branson grow closer, while Matthew and William run into German soldiers and go missing…  

When is it set? A caption simply states ‘1918’ at the beginning of the episode.

Where is it set? The house. The dower house. Isobel’s house. The trenches in France (which oddly only come up to people’s shoulders). The pub where Bates is now working.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* A wounded soldier (Howard Gossington) shows up at Isobel’s house, asking for food, so Mrs Bird starts to run an impromptu soup kitchen.
* Ethel is dismissed, with no reference, after being caught shagging one of the officers. She returns a few days later and asks Mrs Hughes for help: she’s pregnant.

Best bits:
* Isobel and Cora go to battle over control of the hospital. Isobel’s expertise is ignored and her wishes countermanded by Cora. Isobel responds by saying, “It would be foolish to accuse you of being unprofessional since you’ve never had a profession in your life.” Penelope Wilton (Isobel) is terrific, of course, while Elizabeth McGovern (Cora) drops her head and stares intently.
* Molesley has nothing to do now that Matthew is at war, so helps out at the big house – he’s clearly hoping they’ll give him a full-time job as the new valet. Sadly for Molesley, Robert’s recently found out that Bates is nearby, so talks him into returning.

Worst bits:
* Thomas and O’Brien’s bitter twistedness is getting tiresome now. They’re just evil for evil’s sake. Thomas preens when Bates returns, throwing his rank around.
* When O’Brien finds out about Mrs Bird, Mrs Patmore, Daisy and Molesley running a soup kitchen, she makes sure Cora catches them. However, Cora simply insists on them using food bought by the family, not the army. You can see the saccharine twist coming a mile off.
* The soldiers staying at Downton put on a concert party, which forms the climax of the episode. Meanwhile, news reaches the house that Matthew and former footman William have gone missing in France. After days of worry, the two men walk into Downton while Mary is performing a song at the concert. Matthew even joins in. Melodrama has rarely been melo-er. (Facetiousness aside, it’s admittedly a moving moment.)

Real history:
* The rioting in Dublin “last Easter” is again mentioned by Sybil. Branson says it was put down in six weeks. (As it’s now 1918, she means the Easter before last.)
* Preparing for the concert party, Mary sings a bit of If You Were the Only Girl (In the World), a song written by Nat D Ayer and Clifford Grey for the revue The Bing Boys Are Here (1916). At the concert she sings a full-length version, with Edith on piano. It’s in 3/4 waltz time, which is historically inaccurate.

Upstairs, Downton: Sybil and Branson’s romance echoes the taboo relationship James Bellamy had with servant Sarah in the first two seasons of Upstairs, Downstairs. William and Matthew being missing in action echoes series four of Updown, when James was similarly lost behind enemy lines. And a 1974 episode of Updown was named after the song Mary sings here.

Maggie Smithism of the week: “I’m a woman, Mary. I can be as contrary as I choose.”

Mary’s men: She’s resigned to marrying Sir Richard, because Matthew has moved on, but is not thrilled by the idea. She writes to Matthew, who’s in France, to let him know her decision. Later Matthew goes missing. Initially the fact is kept from Mary, but then Edith tells her. Mary cries, but thankfully he shows up the following day.

Review: The First World War famously broke down social barriers, which here is dramatised by Sybil and Branson’s romance. (Incidentally, clips from their cross-class flirting in this episode were used for comic effect in superhero movie Iron Man 3.) But this isn’t a flowering of socialism or anything: the soup-kitchen storyline is there to point out that Downton is only helping injured *officers*. Additionally, maid Ethel loses her job for sleeping with an officer. The class system is still alive and well.

Next episode…

 

Downton Abbey: series 2 episode 3

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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 Andy Goddard. Originally broadcast: 2 October 2011, ITV.

Downton Abbey has been converted into a convalescence home for wounded soldiers, but a number of people are nervous about the new arrangement… Also, Anna spies Bates in the village, Branson’s rebellious plans hit a setback, Thomas gets a new job, and Mary learns some information about love rival Lavinia…

When is it set? No earlier than August 1917.

Where is it set? The house. The village. Lady Rosamund’s house in London. The Dowager’s house. The Red Lion pub in Kirkbymoorside.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Major Bryant (Daniel Pirrie) is an injured officer staying at Downton now that the house is a rest home. Maid Ethel takes a shine to him and flirts. At one point, she tucks her new friend’s blanket in. “I may need some more tucking soon,” he says suggestively. “Well, no one tucks better than I do,” she replies, getting the pun.
* Captain Smiley (Tom Feary-Campbell) is another injured serviceman. He’s lost his left hand, so can’t write to his mother to tell her. He asks Edith to write the letter for him.
* General Sir Herbert Strutt (Julian Wadham) is Matthew’s superior. He comes to inspect the new hospital.

Best bits:
* The glee that Barrow takes from being the manager of Downton and therefore being able to lord it over Carson.
* The arrival of the first batch of wounded is done in a 68-second Steadicam shot, which starts in the hall, leads Robert, Cora, Sybil and Edith outside, circles around many extras unloading from a truck, follows Sybil back inside, finds Barrow helping a wounded officer and ends on Mary walking into the room.
* Anna tracks Bates down at the pub where he’s now working. Their romance has a likeable Brief Encounter vibe.

Worst bits:
* Matthew shows up at the house unexpectedly. For someone fighting the Hun, he doesn’t half make it home to rural Yorkshire a lot.
* Noted firebrand Branson, who’s already in a bad mood after one plan to cause a scene has failed, is told that Matthew is bringing a famous general to the house. O’Brien asks why he’s interested in the information. The camera actually tracks in like Branson’s a bad guy in a Bond film. “No reason,” he says, almost twirling his moustache.
* Matthew says he’s just lost his soldier servant and can’t find a replacement… on the very weekend that newly enlisted William has popped home for a visit. Hashtag Downton Abbey plotting!

Real history:
* Branson tells the other servants the news from Russia: Alexander Kerensky (1881-1970) has been made Prime Minster (this happened on 21 July 1917). Additionally, Tzar Nicholas II (1868-1918) and his family have been imprisoned (this happened from August 1917), but Bolshie Branson is certain they won’t be harmed.
* Branson says he lost a cousin in the Easter Rising “last year” – the Irish rebellion against the British occurred in April 1916. The cousin was walking down North King Street when an English soldier shot him, he said, “because he was probably a rebel”.
* It turns out Lavinia was a key source in the 1912 Marconi-share scandal, which involved Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd-George (1863-1945) and others. She gave secrets about her dodgy uncle to newspaper baron Sir Richard Carlisle, as a way of getting her father out of a large debt.

Upstairs, Downton: Worth mentioning is the BBC revival of Upstairs, Downstairs that ran concurrently with Downton Abbey. A three-part miniseries started on Boxing Day 2010, just six weeks after Downton Abbey’s first season had concluded. Six more episodes were then shown in early 2012 (ie, between Downton’s second and third seasons).Both shows being made around the same time led to some minor bad blood, with Jean Marsh (who co-created the 1970s Updown and played Rose Buck in both versions) suggesting that Downton Abbey was rushed into production as a spoiler series. If so, the plan worked. Updown didn’t return after its second block.

Maggie Smithism of the week: Violet is happy that former footman Thomas Barrow will be put in charge of running the house now it’s also a hospital. “Why?” asks a jealous Isobel, who wanted the job herself. “Are you planning to divide his loyalties?” Violet: “I wouldn’t say I was planning it.”

Mary’s men: A busy week for Lady M. She writes to beau Sir Richard on behalf of Anna, who needs help finding Mr Bates. She then has a chat with Matthew when he shows up. And her old friend Evelyn Napier is in hospital elsewhere and asks Mary to get him into Downton. (Dr Clarkson and Isobel object to such favourtism, which royally pisses Robert off because it’s his house after all.) Later, Mary says to her grandmother that there’s no point chasing Matthew any more because, even if he were to ditch Lavinia, there’s no guarantee he’d propose to Mary. Violet asks if they can perhaps take their fences one at a time. Mary inititally plans to tell Matthew about Lavinia selling secrets to the press, but then finds out she was doing it for noble reasons.

Doggie! It’s seen as the house is converted into a hospital. Later, Isobel asks Robert what they should do to stop Isis (yay! The dog finally has a name!) bothering the patients. “Absolutely nothing,” says an irritated Robert.

Review: More change. People both upstairs and down are unsure how the new situation in the house will work, and this causes plenty of entertaining rows and tension. On the downside, Mr Lang’s subplot doesn’t make much impression, perhaps because we didn’t know him before the war. But the Isobel-Cora rivalry is fun.

Next episode…