Tag Archives: Maggie Smith

Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey told the story of the Crawley family – Lord and Lady Grantham, their daughters, and the enormous estate on which they live. When we first met them, in our 2010 and their 1912, the Crawley family is despairing. The Crawley fortune has been diminishing for years; the Earl of Grantham has just barely held on by marrying a wealthy American, but the two have had only daughters, so there is no male heir to inherit his title or their home. Of course, that’s not their only obstacle, and they aren’t the show’s only characters. An enormous staff is necessary to keep the house running. And while the British aristocracy is declining, the lower classes are rising up, and the two are at an interesting and eventful crossroads. There is an important division between the upstairs and downstairs, one that made for an interesting watch throughout the show’s 6 seasons.

Cut to the movie, circa 1927. The estate is still limping along, although it has lost many of its original (and necessary) domestic servants (don’t worry: the ones you know and love from the show are all present and accounted for). The family are trying their best to economize where they can, but have just received news that’s sure to cost them a pretty penny: the estate is being honoured with a visit from the King and Queen. The enormous burden this presents for the staff is offset by the privilege of serving the royal family – but then the royal family sends ahead their own staff – cooks, butlers, footmen, maids, the whole kit and caboodle, and instead of being happy for some time off, Mr. Carson, Mrs. Hughes and the whole beloved staff interpret it as the a slap in the face. Will they take it sitting down? Hardly. They’re polishing the silver with mutiny in their hearts. Meanwhile, upstairs, the Dowager (Maggie Smith) is still plotting to save the estate and her son’s hereditary title. And the family’s black sheep, Tom Branson (Allen Leech) is being surveilled because the monarchy takes no chances with Irish republicans, even if they’ve married into the British aristocracy.

The show’s creator, Julian Fellowes, is on hand to write the perfect screenplay to throw all of the characters back into their country home. It’s everything a fan of the show could want: the stunning, sun-drenched rooms are made spic-and-span, the servants are scheming, the ladies are asserting themselves, the lower classes are rebelling, times are a-changing, and there are plenty of reasons to motivate several costume changes.

And just for a moment, can we talk about those costumes? Costume designer Anna Mary Scott Robbins worked with John Bright of the costume company COSPROP, which has some of Queen Mary’s actual gowns that could be studied for authenticity. The dress made for the movie was made using actual material from one of the Queen’s original dresses. For the ball scene both Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) wear vintage dresses embellished by the film’s costumers. Dame Maggie Smith’s character, also in vintage, sports a real 19th century platinum tiara with 16.5 carats worth of actual diamonds on loan from Bentley & Skinner of Piccadilly, jewelers by Royal appointments. La-di-dah.

While the film pays respect to the past, it also has an eye to the future, with the Countess Dowager passing the baton, as it were. There’s a certain resolve within the family to keep the estate going for as long as possible, but you and I know the writing’s on the wall, so while the fixtures gleam under the staff’s careful attention, there’s a slight tarnish to it too.

Literally everyone is back, an ensemble impressive in both quantity and quality. And though I wouldn’t have had it any other way, their sheer number means we don’t get a whole lot of time with any one of them. It’s just a taste, really, an amuse-bouche, enough to leave your mouth watering for the main course, but alas, we skip straight to dessert. Still, it’s so nice to catch up with our old pals and considering the film’s success, it needn’t be for the last time either.

Sherlock Gnomes

It was 2011 when we first met garden gnomes who come to life when no humans are watching. Back then, two rival yards, that of the Montagues, and the Capulets, were at war, except Gnomeo fell in love with the forbidden Juliet, and they all got a happier ending than the one Shakespeare wrote for them, set to a soundtrack of Elton John songs.

Cut to: the May long weekend, 2018. Jay and Sean are in the mood to kick off the summer in style, so they drive to the nearest open drive-in, which is playing a TRIPLE feature which we only realize in retrospect was a night of sequels: Sherlock Gnomes, Deadpool 2, and Super Troopers 2 (in order of how they played, and how much I enjoyed them).

As you may have gleaned from the title, instead of revisiting Shakespeare, this time the gnomes tackle Arthur Conan Doyle. London is being terrorized by a garden gnome thief, MV5BM2RhOTI1YjktOGYwMS00MDdkLTg0MWYtNGIxNmRkMWM4NDI5XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyODEyMzI2OTE@._V1_which may sound petty to you, but if all your friends and family are gnomes, you’d understand why Gnomeo and Juliet are so concerned. Luckily London is also home to the kind of taste-makers likely to have literary garden gnomes in their flower beds, so a ceramic version of Sherlock himself (and his ceramic sidekick Watson) show up to solve the crime and save the day.

I liked Gnomeo and Juliet in a “just fine” kind of way, and was surprised to find that a sequel, 7 years after the first, was to be released. I wasn’t even sure if it was a sequel. The first had big names as voice actors – Maggie Smith, Michael Caine, and Emily Blunt and James McAvoy in the titular roles. I assumed they couldn’t possibly be back for a sequel with little to no promotion, and yet they were, in addition to Johnny Depp as the master detective and Chiwetel Ejiofor as the beleaguered Doctor Watson.

The thing is, this movie is once again strictly fine. But it doesn’t have much raison d’etre. It doesn’t aim for much more than kid appeal, which makes its sporadic attempts at literary humour feel out of place. It’s hard to believe that a movie, and in fact two movies, were green-lit specially for the crowd (which I need to believe is pretty small) who find garden gnomes wearing thongs to be hilarious, and movies based on that one running joke to be oddly satisfying.

I didn’t really love this movie, but then I saw Super Troopers 2 and realized that I could probably find just a little bit of leniency for any movie that wasn’t it.

My Old Lady

Mathias (Kevin Kline) is a middle-aged with almost nothing to his name after several unhappy marriages and a serious problem with alcohol. He inherits no cash at all when his father dies, but does get willed an apartment in Paris, so he scrapes together his last pennies for a ticket to France, and off he goes to solve all his problems.

Except there’s an old lady living in his apartment – Mathilde (Maggie Smith). myoldlady1And her daughter Chloe too, as it turns out (Kristin Scott Thomas). His father purchased the apartment some 40 years ago, but bought it en viager, which means he got a pretty good deal on the price, but he had to agree that not only could the current owner keep living in it until she died, he’d have to pay her for the privilege. So for 40 years the father has been paying this old lady to keep living in a home that he technically owns, and now Mathias has inherited a property he can’t sell, and which is actually a debt, with a monthly reverse-rent that must be paid or he forfeits ownership altogether.

It sounds like something that could only happen in a movie but the life lease is a real thing in the cuckoo real estate market of Paris. It’s a crazy gamble, and it doesn’t always pay off. One man who made such an investment paid and paid on a property until the day he died, and then his widow took over the payments for another 32 years because the original owner, Mme Jeanne Calment, lived to be 122! You can’t predict how long someone will live, and you’re effectively betting on their death when you strike such a deal. In the film we learn that Mathias’s father may have been otherwise motivated, but Mathias is in a tight spot, and Mathilde is looking surprisingly robust for a 90 year old.

My Old Lady is interesting for more than just its quirky real estate. It’s a tale of family strife, narcissism, childhood trauma, intergenerational sin, and forgiveness. Kline reveals his character’s damage and distress in small doses, and the 3 leads together have great chemistry, although it’s a bit difficult to watch Smith be the bad guy. Nobody looks good beating up on a nonagenarian. Director Israel Horovitz puts forth a straight-forward film that plods along a little slowly to its inevitable conclusion, but I was nevertheless charmed by 3 actors doing solid work in the beautiful city of light.




2016: Year of the Fabulous Ladies

Goodness me, this year is flying by, and looking back at some of my favourite films, I’m seeing a trend. A trend toward women of a certain age. Over 50, let’s say; the women who have often been ignored by Hollywood (more than half of all female characters are well under 40, which is not true of men). And yet here they are, fierce and fabulous. I’m resisting calling them “older women” (perhaps it’s time for a new word?) because they are so much more than merely older. These are terrific women giving voice to characters that are rarely seen, and heard even less (women are given less and less dialogue as they age whereas middle-aged men get more).

Aging is a sin in Hollywood. You go from playing the ingénue to someone’s mom, and then you drop off the face of the earth unless you’re Betty White. Which you’re not. Hollywood casts young women into older roles – Angelina Jolie once played Colin Farrell’s mother. She is one year older than he is. Amy Poehler played Rachel McAdams’ mother in Mean Girls despite only a 7 year age difference. Sally Field played Tom Hanks’ mother with just a decade between them – and having previously played his love interest! Toni Collette, aged 33, played Paul Dano’s mother when he was 22 (in Little Miss Sunshine). Laura Dern is just 9 years senior to her “daughter” Reese Witherspoon in Wild. Winona Ryder is just 5 years older than her Star Trek on-screen son, Zachary Quinto. That would be like Jonah Hill playing Miles Teller’s dad instead of his high school classmate. WTF?

All too many once-great actresses were abandoned by Hollywood when they hit 40. Where is Angela Bassett? Geena Davis? Joan Allen? Janet McTeer? We can’t save them all, but we vote with our dollars, by making sure that films like these find their audience:

Florence Foster Jenkins – Meryl Streep turns in an endearingly cringe-worthy performance. When she turned 40, she was offered THREE witch parts in the same year. THREE! She turned them all down.  “I just had a political sort of reaction against the concept of old women being 23F3E33000000578-2869426-image-a-28_1418262921292demonized and age being this horrifying, scary thing. I just didn’t like that. I didn’t like it when I was a little girl, I don’t like it now.”

Grandma – Lily Tomlin proves Grandmas come in all sorts of salty sizes. She’s as edgy and witty as ever. “I’ve been offered lots of [roles as] people’s grandmothers that are just the butt of a joke. Doddering with a track suit on. The object of humor, just as women or gay people were the object of humor through ridicule in earlier movies. That was an accepted target, use of someone of that age or that lifestyle.”

Eye in the Sky – Helen Mirren shows nerves of steel as the powerful head of a military operation. Mirren has called Hollywood’s ageist double standard “fucking outrageous.” “Even Shakespeare did that to us. As you get older, even the Shakespeare roles become [less substantial for older women] — that’s why we have to start stealing the men’s roles — doing like I did in “The Tempest,” [by changing the role of Prospero to] Prospera. And it’s great that a lot of women are doing Hamlet, doing “Henry V,” and I’m sure there will be a female Othello soon. And I love that. I think it’s absolutely great because, you know, why not?”

Youth – Jane Fonda has a small but scene-stealing role in this movie about finding meaning in your later years. “Ageism is alive and well. It is okay for men to get older, because men become more desirable by being powerful. With women, it’s all about how we look. Men are very visual, they want young women. So, for us, it’s all about trying to stay young. I need to work, so I had some plastic surgery. It’s not like it’s too much, it’s not like you can’t see my wrinkles, right? But I think it probably bought me a decade of work.”

Lady in the Van – Maggie Smith gives life and dignity to a mysterious woman living in her van. “I’m always older than God in these parts now.” She played Wendy’s 92 year old grandmother in Steven Spielberg’s Hook and “I’ve been that ever since. They don’t need to make me up any more, I’m afraid. I’ve caught up with myself.”

I’ll See You In My Dreams – Blythe Danner tackles widowhood, retirement, and loneliness. “I remember Leslie Caron years ago saying she left Hollywood when she was 30 or 35 because that’s when roles disappear. That’s not the case anymore, there are better, three-dimensional roles for women of all ages. I’m 71 and I’ve been working more now and getting better roles than I did when I was younger.”

mary-todd-sally-field-lincolnHello My Name Is Doris – a riotous movie starring Sally Field, her first starring role in nearly 20 years. “They don’t write roles for women… and they certainly don’t write roles for women of age and women of color,” said Field. “Since the industry is run by men, men have a tendency to want to make stories about themselves and things they identify with. Then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

The Lady In The Van

Maggie Smith’s Ms. Shepherd is “NOT a beggar!” although you could hardly blame someone for assuming so – she’s dirty, she lives in a derelict van, and her “self-employment” appears to consist of chalk imagesart on the street, and selling pencils. That van of hers is a neighbourhood nuisance; the people live in fear of when she might exercise her “Christian parking” principles beside their little bit of curb.

Alan Bennett wrote the screenplay,and is also  a character in the movie, portrayed by the excellent Alex Jennings. This is based on a mostly true story. This woman, who elicited both sympathy and revulsion in her “neighbours”, was a nutshell that fascinated and


inspired both Alan’s decency, and his creativity, when he moved into Camden in the 1970s.

Bennett is moved to have the mysterious lady in the van move into his driveway to keep her legal, though her obstinacy insists it is she doing the favour for him. She is most ungrateful but Bennett cares for her as best he can (and “caring” he intones, “is about shit”), always battling internally over what’s right and what’s right for him. Bennett-the-screenwriter isn’t shy about telling us what really the-lady-in-the-van-4happened, and what just makes for a nicer story. In fact, Bennett has conveniently split himself in two, the one who goes out and lives, and the one who stays home and writes.

The lady in the van lived outside Bennett’s home for two decades, a noble  vagabond in greasy rags, living inside a grubby vehicle – one so convincing that the cast and director turned up one Monday morning to find that real homeless people had broken into it and spent the weekend inside, making use of it as two people might (the van’s video-the-lady-in-the-van-trailer-1-superJumbocontents had to be deep-cleaned before they could be made suitably grimy again for production). They filmed in the very driveway of the very home where Bennett lived at the time.

Smith’s performance is vital and infuriatingly nuanced. You haven’t seen Dame Smith like this before. This film is a feather in her already-decorated cap: not to be missed.


The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

“Why die here when I can die there?” – a dubious tagline is ever there was one.

I can’t pretend that even the first one was a complete pleasure for me, but I am ever so charmed by the golden oldies in the cast and that was excuse enough, more than enough, to give it a watch.

41817The second one has mostly the same cast of Britain’s finest senior citizens. Bill Nighy, a particular favourite of mine, does his brilliant little grimace right off the bat, and I am gratified: almost worth the price of admission. Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton are at their cattiest, delightfully. Judi Dench is as strong and charismatic as ever. But this movie tries so hard to recreate the first one’s magic by basically just regurgitating it when in fact what it needed most was some fresh blood. Richard Gere, you say? Yes, he makes an appearance, but it stinks. He makes his grand entrance, grey hair flopping boyishly away, bringing with him the ugly whiff of American romcom. He’s like a virus, infecting what was already a perfect cast, a full complement of the world’s best that didn’t need or want improving upon. And Gere doesn’t – no fault of his. He just stuck out like a sore thumb.

The elderly each have their own romantic subplots, but the story’s meat is that Sonny (Dev Patel) is looking to take on a second property to expand his hotel “empire” while neglecting his la-ca-1219-the-second-best-exotic-131-jpg-20150107wedding plans. Actually, the wedding bits were probably the most dazzling – the colours, the flowers, the brightly lit lanterns, the beautiful saris. But I didn’t remember Dev Patel being such an awkward, borderline racist caricature. A bit of a buffoon maybe, but now he’s a downright fool. His florid, over the top communications wore me out quickly. And the constant “jokes” about death – (I hesitate to call them that though I do believe that’s the spirit in which they were intended) – painful. Not a single one landed with the audience, most of them there on a discounted senior’s ticket. Crickets.

Even the title tells us this will be the second best, but it doesn’t suggest just how far from the first it has fallen. Second rate is more like it.




We find three friends living in a nursing home for retired musicians. They have performed together, years ago, and remember those days fondly, but their days of entertaining are not quite over. The home puts on an annual show and everyone’s busy preparing for it, as well as preparing for a new resident – rumoured to be quite a star. And as she pulls up in a chauffeured car with her many furs and jewels, Maggie Smith is every inch a star.

The trio of friends is in upheaval – Cecily is ecstatic to reconnect with an old friend, but Reginald is angry to find his ex-wife now living in the same home. Reginald’s best friend and one-time best man Wilf (played by Billy Connolly) tries to keep the peace but soon they must all work together because age and failing health has jeopardized the show, and the quartet must replace the last act, currently hospitalized, to ensure enough money is raised to keep the home solvent for another year, although Jean (Smith) has vowed never to perform in public again.

Okay, so the plot is predictable. Will they sing together once again? Of course they will. We’d be watching four more amenable geezers otherwise. The meat of the movie is more in the subplot, the pain between Reginald and Jean and their heartbreak still palpable after all these years. The joy of this movie is seeing all of these musicians, in the “encore” of their lives, still burning with passion for their craft. Even with dementia creeping in, music is the last thing to be forgotten. Director Dustin Hoffman does a lovely job juxtaposing the ailing bodies with spirited music, arthritic fingers still finding all the right notes, voices cracking with age but still filled with dignity and resonance.

Of course Billy Connolly injects a lot of energy and charisma into the film, providing lots of light counterpoints. It’s an enjoyable film that gives you lots to admire. I particularly enjoyed that the supporting cast is made up of actual retired stage performers (check the credits for their past work). Oftentimes when watching a British film, it’s like watching a reunion of old friends. When Maggie Smith appeared, I was watching over her shoulder for Penelope Wilton, who never appeared, but the ghost of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was a bit of a specter in this movie, and anyone who enjoyed that one will find satisfaction in Quartet.

p.s. If you enjoy this movie, and maybe even if you don’t, you should check out Young at Heart (2007), a documentary about an elderly chorus group who enjoys singing rock, punk, and all kinds of unexpected tunes. Really good stuff.