Posted in Television

The Return of Downton Abbey

Mary-and-Matthew-Crawley-Wedding-downton-abbey-32428302-3000-2000Last night was definitely worth waiting for.

“Downton Abbey” returned to PBS in all its aristocratic splendor, with Mary and Matthew tying the knot at long last. It took them 2+ seasons to get to the altar, but the trip was an intriguing one, made enjoyable by watching the performances of Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens. It’s to their credit that these actors made every twist of this relationship plausible, because at times they had to jump through some incredible hoops (miraculous recovery from paralysis, anyone?).

On the plus side of the ledger, we had the Dowager Countess in rare form, littering her path with bon mots, but stepping up when it was most needed by sending Sybil and Tom the fare to attend the wedding. I liked her collaboration with Isabel Crawley to get Tom into a cutaway, and Maggie Smith played the “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” sing along to perfection. It’s too bad the show’s creator, Julian Fellows, didn’t write an equally realized character for Shirley MacLaine to play. I would have expected more for Cora’s mother—instead we got Fellows’ wildly off-key conception of a dotty American. If memory serves, Mrs. Levinson (under her first husband’s name) made the match between Cora and Robert, which shows title shopping at its best. If she were that ambitious, there’s no way she’d be putting down the British aristocracy for being fuddy-duddy, no matter what changes the war brought.

It seems upstairs will be preoccupied with money in the weeks to come, and I’m already tired of it. Though I must say it was a great coup for show continuity by having Lord Grantham lose his fortune by investing in the Canadian Grand Trunk Railway, formerly run by Charles Hays. Mr. Hays died in the sinking of the Titanic, so that makes Downton Abbey a three-time loser with this disaster, the body count consisting of two heirs and one investment property. But Matthew’s reluctance to accept that sizable inheritance left by Lavinia’s father is somewhat ridiculous. Yes, she was a sweet girl and he’s apparently still guilt-ridden over kissing Mary while his erstwhile fiancée lay dying of Spanish influenza, but let’s get real. Don’t you wish Mary would scream at him “She was only a plot device! Get over it”?

As far as downstairs goes, we’re now in double overtime as far as Bates’ murder conviction is concerned. This is a plot that desperately needs resolution, because Anna is being wasted in its service. On the other hand, it was great to see O’Brien turn on Thomas in order to advance her nephew in the household, though I still think she’s a snake (She’ll never live down that strategically placed cake of soap that caused Cora’s miscarriage).  Mrs. Hughes unfortunately ended up with the obligatory illness storyline, which I hope sorts itself out sooner rather than later, otherwise O’Brien will have the opportunity she’s been waiting for (and doesn’t deserve).

I’m looking forward to seeing where the Lady Edith/Lord Anthony story goes, because that girl needs a break. She’s got her bitchy side, but let’s face it—it must have been tough growing up in Lady Mary’s shadow. What’s going to be even tougher in the weeks to come is avoiding more spoilers. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve got to know Dan Stevens is leaving the show (sob!) and that Matthew’s fate was revealed in the UK on Christmas Day (cue screaming).

Definitely looking forward to more of the Crawleys in the post-war world in the weeks to come.

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Posted in Movie Reviews, Opera

No-Winter Notes

As I’m writing this, all forecasts say we’re going to hit 62 degrees this afternoon. It’s baseball weather. The last time we had a winter this mild (about 15 years ago if fading memory serves), the trees were blooming in late February. Despite the nay-sayers, yes Virginia, there is indeed global warming.

Does an actor or performer ever use up their ability to engage us? Is there ever a time when they reach into their bag of tricks and just can’t find the technique, the gesture or the intonation that surprises us and makes us remember how gifted they really are? Unfortunately, yes.

The Suave Mr. Morris

This past Saturday I heard the Met broadcast of Tosca, which featured Patricia Racette, Marcelo Alvarez and James Morris. It’s hard to believe, but Mr. Morris has 40 years at the Met under his belt, having made his debut at the tender age of 23 (he was a baby Don Giovanni four years later). I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him perform an incredible range of roles—Philip II in Verdi’s Don Carlo, Iago, Wotan in Die Walkure, and Dr. Schoen, fatally caught in the web of Berg’s Lulu. Flipping the coin, he was all that you could want as Mozart’s Figaro. When Margaret Juntwait, announcer for the Met broadcasts, mentioned that Morris would soon be singing Claggart in Britten’s Billy Budd again, I thought “My God, what will the Met do when he retires?” I’ve seen him twice in the role, and can’t imagine anyone else bringing to the part what he does. On Saturday he was a wonderfully suave and menacing Scarpia who never let you forget he was an aristocrat, which is something most baritones overlook—it’s Baron Scarpia after all. Yes, his voice is showing some age, and as a bass-baritone some of Scarpia’s high notes were fudged or non-existent. But who cares when you hear an artist who never fails to surprise?

The next day I saw Albert Nobbs with Glenn Close in false nose and Charlie Chaplin pants and bowler. Albert may have been 19th century Irish, but when I see him, all I see is Patty Hewes from Damages. Somewhere along the line I became clued into her as an actor—her moves are predictable. It’s not shtik, which is a term I’d attach to Susan Sarandon, whose performances became very one-note for me as long ago as The Client, though she did a bang-up job in ‘Cradle’ Will Rock (And while I’m on the subject, I’ve got a long-standing bone to pick: Anne Bancroft was the image of Reggie as described in John Grisham’s novel, and should have gotten the movie role, no questions asked). On the other hand, Janet McTeer, who matches Albert Nobbs’s m.o. by disguising herself as a man, is tremendous. There’s one scene she steals (among several) that puts all this into perspective—when she, as Hubert, and Albert don dresses to walk along the beach. Glenn Close walks as Glenn Close, i.e., a woman. Janet McTeer manages to pull off a true Victor/Victoria—a woman playing a man playing a woman—displaying all guises simultaneously. It has to be seen to be believed. I think she’s a long shot to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, but I’d love for her to do it.

Super Bowl Sunday is looming, but I’ve got a confession to make: even though I’m a Giants fan, I’m switching to PBS at 9:00 p.m. Nothing gets between me and Downton Abbey, especially now with the Spanish influenza epidemic on the horizon, Lady Mary facing perpetual blackmail from her sleaze of a fiance, Matthew–er–indisposed for marriage and Lavinia vowing that she can’t live without him. I don’t remember the last time I saw two characters as engaging or as right for each other as Lady Mary and Matthew, and if they’re not back together by the end of this season, I’ll be fuming for a year.

Tomorrow is Groundhog Day. Bet Punxsutawney Phil shows up wearing shades with a beer in his paw.