From Time to Time

From Time to Time

Director: Julian Fellowes
Starring: Alex Etel, Timothy Spall and Maggie Smith
Distributor: Hopscotch Films
Runtime: 95 mins. Reviewed in Nov 2011
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: Mild themes

1944 seems to have been an unusual year for some British children if films are to be believed. Some of them went into cupboards and entered Narnia. At the pictures, they might have gone to see Margaret O’Brien and Charles Laughton in The Canterville Ghost, where a little girl meets a ghost in a stately English home. In From Time to Time, we are back in a stately home, back in 1944, and a young boy finds that he can move from 1944 back to 1809, see what was happening in the house back then – and he could be seen by some of the characters (good) but not by others (several of them bad).

Filmgoers may associate writer Julian Fellowes with his Oscar-winning script for Gosford Park (another stately home) and know that he has written Young Victoria and the stage version for Mary Poppins. With Maggie Smith as the star of the film, this one might be thought of as a film for adults. But, it is much more a film for younger audiences which their parents might enjoy.

Though, having said that, it might be noted that the film is very British, particularly British in look and sound, and may seem quite remote to younger audiences from other countries. (But, if they think Narnia, they may readily accept it.)

Just before Christmas 1944, 14 year old Tolly goes to stay with his grandmother. Tolly is played by Alex Etal (who was the little boy who saw the saints in Danny Boyle’s Millions.) While there are rations and coupons, life is not altogether unpleasant, though Tolly is resisting the idea that his soldier father might have been killed in action. Gran can be rather starchy, even condescending (in the Maggie Smith vein). Tolly listens to stories about the history of the house from the very genial groundskeeper (Timothy Spall) and the kindly housekeeper (Pauline Collins). Then, suddenly, he is in the stories of the past, opening a door from the muted drab colour of the war period into the bright colour and vitality of the Regency era. He can move instantly from one period to the other – with a little time travel mystery involving a torch that Tolly leaves in the past to help an ancestor of the groundskeeper – and then finds it in a cupboard of old relics.

So, From Time to Time is to be understood literally. Tolly befriends a blind girl and her African former slave boy, Jacob, and learns of his arrogant ancestor, Sefton, and his extravagant Dutch mother and the stern majordomo. There is a crisis when the mother’s jewels are stolen and then the house is engulfed in fire.

Without wanting to spoil the ending, it is probably best to say that it is sad but upbeat – an affirmation of stiff upper lip Britishness.

The film is based on the second of a series of novels from the 1950s, The Green Knowe novels by Lucy M. Boston which Fellowes loved when he was young. He has created the stern atmosphere of the war and obviously relished the colour, decor and costumes of the 19th century.

The film entertains but it may be too reserved in its style for many of today’s audiences.

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