BluRay/DVD Reviews

FROM TIME TO TIME

By • Apr 17th, 2012 •

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It’s Christmas in England, 1944, the penultimate year of the Second World War. Young Tolly (Alex Etel) Oldknow’s father is missing in action. While his mum goes off in search of news, Tolly is sent to the ancestral manse, Green Knowe, currently presided over by his grandmother, Mrs. Oldknow (Maggie Smith). The family has been estranged for years, but sharing anguish and hope over the missing soldier, granddame and grandson quickly bond. Assisted by Mrs. Oldknow’s trusted servants Mrs. Tweedle (Pauline Colliins) and Boggis (Timothy Spall), they make the best of an anxious and war-ravaged holiday season.

In the meantime, Tolly explores the big pile of a house. Walking from one room to the next, he finds himself stepping, quite literally, in and out of scenes from two centuries earlier. He becomes friends with the ghosts of his ancestor, the blind child Susan Oldknow (Eliza Bennett) and her freed slave companion Jacob (Kwayedza Kureya). When Tolly is with them, he is drawn into the day to day turmoil of their lives; when he steps back into the twentieth century, his grandmother regales him with the family legends that have been passed down through the years. Through this juxtaposition, Tolly comes to understand the connection between the past and the present, and to accept the continued relationship between the living and the dead.

When Roy Frumkes asked me to watch this movie and review it for FIR, he said something like, “This does not look like it will be too strong for you,” as he handed me the DVD.

I have been, I am afraid, a wimpy movie watcher for time immemorial, having walked out of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK the second the snakes appeared, spent AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON underneath the velvet folding seat at the movie palace, and thrown up into a garbage can directly upon leaving a screening of ALIENS. Roy was right, despite the fact that this movie is about ghosts and wartime, it’s very mild (it is kind of sad, but I don’t mind crying; it’s terror I can’t handle).

So here’s my dilemma: how can I make this sound attractive to most viewers, who have much more stomach than do I? What should I say: contains mostly friendly ghosts who are not intimidating, Maggie Smith at her least imperious, not-harrowing wartime images of ration coupons being exchanged?

Well, I will say that my husband, Mark, whose favorite movie is one I will never sit through–PULP FICTION–also liked FROM TIME TO TIME. And one of the things we both agreed about was that it has a really smart pace. The outline of the story is revealed in a few clear strokes: a lone boy perches uneasily on his suitcase at a misty country train station. After a few minutes, a stolid middle-aged man approaches from the distance. A few, laconic lines of dialogue are exchanged, and we understand everything we need to about the time, the place, and the boy’s circumstances. When Tolly arrives at Green Knowe, he and his grandmother shake hands, and he asks, “Shall I call you granny or Mrs. Oldknow?” and we know that their relationship is strained. And then Tolly takes in the portrait festooned walls of the great hall and asks her, “Who are all these pictures of?”

She replies, “They are your family,” to which he answers “But they’re all dead, aren’t they? I thought your family had to be alive.”

A central theme is quickly and quietly revealed. There’s a beauty in the simplicity and clarity of the set up.

The art direction is quite lovely, everything you expect of a great and gently decaying house and grounds, and a nice atmospheric contrast to the scenes set during the manor’s Regency heyday. Maggie Smith is fine, not at all tart, domineering, and mischievous, as I usually expect her to be, but very warm, wise, and mischievous. The really dramatic events in this film take place in the past, and Dominic West, playing the handsome and evil servant Caxton who is at the heart of the conflict, provides a welcome frisson of fear, even for me.

I enjoyed this movie, but I do have to agree with some of the opinions I encountered while researching it online. The whole ghost/time travel thing is kind of confusing. Is Tolly really traveling back in time, or are the ghosts stalking the present? And why is it that some of the characters from the past can see him, although he is invisible to others? And once the drama in the past heats up, the present becomes more of an opportunity for exposition about the past than an occasion to amplify the World War II story.

I don’t think that this film ever had theatrical release in the United States, as I could not find any local or national newspaper reviews of it, but I know why there is interest in releasing the DVD right now. Actor-turned-writer/producer/director Julian Fellowes won an Oscar for the screenplay for GOSFORD PARK in 2001, but he is best known for creating and writing the currently hot television series DOWNTON ABBEY. While this occupies similar territory to FROM TIME TO TIME (the great house the family is attached to is, in this case, Downton Abbey, rather than Green Knowe), and uses some of the same actors, it begins a few decades earlier, when the British Empire was still a force to be reckoned with and a phalanx of servants bustled through the halls, rather than just a few loyal retainers. And, the event that sets the story in motion is the sinking of the Titanic, rather than the imminent end of World War II.

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