Ghost-story-time-travel kids’ adventure crossover does double-period drama and goes to some very dark places indeed. The Secret Garden meets The Devil’s Backbone, with cut-glass British accents.
In 1944, Manchester lad Tolly (Alex Etel) goes to stay with estranged grandmother Linnet (Maggie Smith – Harry Potter, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) at the family’s ramshackle estate; Tolly’s father is missing in action in the war. Family resentments bubble. Then Tolly starts seeing ghosts…
And so we’re thrown back into family history in the early 1800’s, an opportunity for Austen-tatious breeches and crinolines, through the ghosts of blind Susan (the aptly cast Eliza Bennett) and her freed slave companion Jacob (Kwayedza Kureya).
In the Wartime ‘present,’ the marvellous Ms. Smith is supported by trusted servants Mrs. Tweedle (Pauline Colliins – Shirley Valentine) and Boggis (Timothy Spall – Harry Potter), to make the best of an anxious and war-ravaged holiday season.
But before long, Tolly miraculously achieves some kind of astral projection to time-travel back to the period and becomes involved in the intrigues of the household: stalwart Capt. Oldknowe (Hugh Bonneville – Downton Abbey), social-climbing wicked step-mother Maria (Carice van Houten – Black Death, Game of Thrones) and spoilt son Sefton (Douglas Booth – Great Expectations). All the while, villainous butler Caxton (Dominic West – The Awakening, The Wire) plots and schemes.
Actor-turned-writer/producer/director Julian Fellowes (Oscar-winner for 2001’s Gosford Park), turns in another immaculate English country house drama, but all in all, From Time to Time is a confused muddle of tropes, themes and plot lines.
Fellowes smashes together the wartime family drama with a period-piece that veers into pastiche; Maria’s domestic cruelty, Seftons deliberate racism against Jacob, Caxton’s dark plotting, the mansion house fire, the progressive paragon of virtue Capt. Oldknowe; then mashes ghosts, time travel and missing jewels to bake a suspenseful kids adventure – which isn’t the actual climax.
Even I have to say it’s a pudding-basin of ingredients too far.
The central theme continually disappears in the trifle layers; looking at the dusty portraits, Tolly asks who they are: “They are your family,” replies Linnett, to which he answers “But they’re all dead, aren’t they? I thought your family had to be alive.”
As he explores and picks over the accumulated family legends, to actually Meet the Ancestors, Tolly comes to understand the connection between the past and the present, and literally build a relationship between the living and the dead.
Not exactly subtle.
But the serious flaw is at the end. Although the characters and performances are admirable across the board – all the child actors going to to star roles – From Time to Time jarrs throughout and plummets horribly at the end.
Fellowes takes us to a very dark place in contemplating death and mortality; the emotionally complex finale is a stark tear-jerker.
The ghostly goings-on and terrifying house-fire rescue may prove too much for younger viewers, while the utter lack of logical narrative will frustrate the older ones; but it’s that ending that will leave all of them dejected, whatever the qualities of the preceding hour and a half. RC
From Time to Time (2009)
Director: Julian Fellowes
Writers: Lucy M. Boston, Julian Fellowes
Running time: 1 hr. 35 min.
Genre: Drama, Action & Adventure, Science Fiction & Fantasy
Cast: Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Alex Etel, Carice Van Houten, Dominic west, Timothy Spall, Pauline Collins, Eliza Bennett, Kwayedza Kureya
Related: Review: The Awakening (2012)