Skip to main content

To make the mind still, to escape from time. Not to another place, but another time.


The Amazing Mr. Blunden
(1972)

What with that title, you’d be forgiven for thinking this family movie was a ropey Mary Poppins cash-in. Fortunately, it is entirely misleading as regards the pervading presence of Mr Blunden himself. He’s integral, of course, but he doesn’t float around on an umbrella, perform magic tricks, or do anything really amazing. Indeed, it’s more amazing that his circumstance is rather tragic.


The Railway Children was a much-loved staple when I was wee, but somehow Lionel Jeffries’ follow-up entirely passed me by (despite, by Wikipedia accounts, having a firm place in the nation’s hearts). I was also familiar with the lesser creature that is The Water Babies, Jeffries’ final of five films as a director, all of them family or youth orientated. As an actor, Jeffries has been an enduring favourite, often cast as an exasperated policeman or sergeant outwitted by Peter Sellers or other ascendant comedian. One of his best spotlights is as Sergeant Major Sydney MacGregor in that rarest of things, a good Michael Winner movie (You Must Be Joking!).


As a director he shows surprising consistency and diligence. His films may be aimed at younger audience, but the tone is neither patronising nor simplistic. Adults behave like adults, they’re just not giving full voice to their predilections in front of minors (there’s an undercurrent of sex and sadism within the Victorian household, so it’s probably a fair representation of the truth of the period). Jeffries may be depicting Victoriana or Georgiana but he isn’t gripped by pure chocolate box nostalgia. Rather there’s a Dickensian recognition of the grime and grimness amidst the child’s eye of hope. And still, there’s an affirmative sense of the English landscape embedded in his vision, its peace and its beauty (even when the majority of the proceedings are confined to a country house). He’s also a gentle satirist, as his depiction of church services (administered by Paul Eddington) are filled less with a devoted flock than luckless habitués.


And the world of the beyond is a mysterious, unfathomable place; whatever rules Mr. Blunden operates by are curious to say the least. There appears to be no direct equation with a Christian influence (although the backdrop of church and it’s graveyards is lingering). Nor is there the pagan underbelly of The Box of Delights. This is more nebulous, almost as if the laws of the universe take shape in aid of whatever the individual needs to fulfil their destiny.


Jeffries adapted Antonia Barber’s novel The Ghosts, which was first published three years earlier. It’s easy to see why the title wasn’t used. Not only is it rather non-descript, it’s also misleading (since the children are not, strictly speaking, ghosts). Beginning in 1918, the titular solicitor (Laurence Naismith) offers a widow (Dorothy Alison) and her children, Lucy (Lynne Frederick) and Jamie (Garry Miller) the position of caretakers of a rundown country mansion. There, Lucy and Jamie encounter two children from 1818, Sara (Rosalyn Landor) and Georgie (Marc Granger), who have travelled through time to enlist their help. Sara and Georgie have been orphaned, and are convinced that their Uncle’s in-laws are trying to kill them for Georgie’s inheritance. Mr. Blunden, the original you might say, is the family solicitor in this time but he pays no heed to the children’s pleas. Lucy and Jamie travel back to 1818 to help them.


Really then, The Amazing Mr. Blunden is metaphysical time travel tale masquerading as a ghost story. The finer points of how Blunden is enabled to correct his mistakes are not dwelt upon, nor are the logistics of his corporeality. We learn that part of him is “undead”.  And he says, “I have suffered for 100 years, tormented by my own conscience”. His 1818 self is ignorant and aloof (“a shallow, insensitive man”) to the plight of Sara and Georgie, but his “spirit” form is able to assume corporeal form at will. He is also able to re-merge with his 1818 original, although this seems to have no enlightening effect on his disposition. Or does it? Later, he is able to absorb the pain of the fire that Jamie would have experienced; presumably spirit Blunden bides his time within and galvanises his original self when the time comes. His abilities also include leading Sara and Georgie to a book containing A Charm To Move The Wheel of Time; the ingredients for a potion both sets of children use to traverse the century (“To make the mind still, to escape from time. Not to another place, but another time”). As with Alice in Wonderland, the adventure really begins when the kinder ingesting reality-altering substances; in this case, they trip out and arrive in the distant past.


Perhaps surprisingly, when Blunden perishes in the fire that is not the end of him. One might have expected that, his work finished and amends made, he would pass on permanently to the spirit world. Instead he appears back in 1918 and, to the question of which Blunden he is, responds, “We three kings of orient are, my dear”.  Jeffries seems to be playing with Holy Trinity references, but it’s unclear quite how they are supposed to relate to Blunden. There are only two of him, unless the version at the end is the third? The vicar refers to the trinity (Lucy and Jamie exchange a look when he mentions the Holy Ghost), and the three kings reference may have been added as a makeshift to forestall any suggestions of blasphemy. Has Blunden been titled with some sort of divine status? (Not having read the book, I couldn’t say if any of these points are clarified within, although it seems that there Blunden remains dead following the fire).


The plot unspools if inspected too closely. Others have noted the movie’s apparent incorporation of a version of The Grandfather Paradox. Elements of the scenario are strikingly similar to Back to the Future. The changing of fates is represented by the transposing of elements; Blunden’s replaces the children’s gravestone, just as in BTTF Marty’s photo alters as the timeline is affected. But if Marty is attempting to ensure that he is born, the revelation that Sara was in fact the children’s great-great grandmother creates confusion. Who was the great-great grandmother of Lucy and Jamie in the original timeline, where Sara and Georgie die in the fire? It suggests a paradox (as per The Terminator), as Lucy and Jamie at the beginning could not be the descendants of someone who expired as a child. It appears that a solution exists, at least in the book. When Jamie returns to the present but fallen into a coma, he visits an unearthly realm. There he is informed that he and Lucy’s past was changed as a reward for saving the children, and so they became the descendants of Sarah and thus inherited the estate.  


Naismith is appropriately beamish as the spirit Blunden and cold-hearted as the 1818 version. The child actors are of varying skill, but all competent. Lynne Frederick (who had turned 18 when the film was released) died tragically early at 39 from alcoholism. Famously (or infamously, given the bad press she received and the hard-to-lose label of gold-digger) she became Peter Sellers’ fourth wife. He was in the process of divorcing her when he died, so she inherited his entire estate (she married David Frost six months after Sellers’ death). The same year as Mr. Blunden, Frederick played the lead in the much less innocent Vampire Circus. She gave up acting completely at the end of the decade (her last role was the dire Sellers version of The Prisoner of Zenda). She’s every bit as good as Jeffries’ previous rising star find, Jenny Agutter, although Lucy does unfortunately become a bit of “useless girl” during the climax; it’s boys who need to do all the heroic stuff, you know.


Gary Miller is less sure of himself, but has enthusiasm on his side. Both Landor and young Granger (his only film role) are fine. I suppose the only general criticism one might direct is that they’re all terribly, terribly well spoken. Just like The Railway Children; that’s English Heritage filmmaking for you. The only exception is Thomas (Stuart Lock), but he’s a common servant boy (there’s an implicit criticism of class divides; although the film makes no bones about the way society frowns upon the intermingling of the stratum, both Uncle Bertie and Sarah marry outside their class, and to dreadful lower class types!)


Jeffries fills the supporting roles with an array of eccentrics. James Villiers is mercenary fool Uncle Bertie, selling off the family silver to finance his wastrel lifestyle. His wife Bella, a music hall performer with the mind of a child, is played by Madeline Smith.  Smith was no stranger to lusty parts. She appeared in Hammer Horrors including The Vampire Lovers, played Erotica in the big screen Up Pompeii and was bedded by James Bond in Live and Let Die.  The child’s mind is used to explain why Bella can see the “ghosts” of the children when none of the other adults can, explained little further than adults being “Too old, too insensitive”. The openness of children to the supernatural is a common theme, as emphasised by the line “As children grow older, they lose the power to believe”.  Imagination is the first thing to go, of course. Villiers and Smith garishly encapsulate Bertie, cooing “My little sausage”, and Bella, with her peanut brain and vacant voice. One might suggest the antagonists are a little too broad, too cartoonish; at times this it feels a bit like they’re stepped out of Carry on Dickens.


However distasteful Bertie and Bella may be, Mrs Wickens (Diana Dors) and Mr. Wickens (David Lodge) are outright grotesques. Dors plays up the pantomime villainy, befitting a character attempting all manner of methods for offing the children. She’s also given to a range of abusive language that pushes the boundaries of family viewing, mostly directed at Sara (“You skinny slut!”, “Where are you, you hussy?”). Mr. Wickens, a brain-damaged ex-boxer, is a nightmarish brute; something you’d find moaning and drooling in a Hammer dungeon. Also appearing is the great Graham Crowden as Mr. Clutterbuck (a partner of Blunden’s law firm).


Elmer Bernstein’s score by is a tad intrusive at times, but the technical side is accomplished. The redressing of the dilapidated/thriving mansion is effective, and cinematographer Gerry Fisher’s images are evocative, from wintry London to the ghoulish Victorian kitchen. Fisher worked on a wide variety of movies, including The Offence, Wolfen, Highlander and The Exorcist III.


Lionel Jeffries’ film may not hold the classic status of The Railway Children, but it cements his reputation as a filmmaker. He shows his dexterity as a writer through pulling off some rather awkward structural transitions (no sooner have the children met their 19th century relatives than a lengthy flashback sequence begins). As a director, he knew the best way to make family movies was to treat the audience with respect (he fared less well in that regard with his last two pictures). The Amazing Mr. Blunden may occasionally feel slightly nebulous, but that might be a good thing when so much demands over explanation. This is an imaginative, well-crafted tale. As the credits roll, there is a cast curtain call as the performers say their farewells. It’s a decision that seems to ignite the ire of some who otherwise love the picture. I found it quite jolly, if only for Crowden’s enthusiastic “Oh, goodbye!

**** 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Your honor, with all due respect: if you're going to try my case for me, I wish you wouldn't lose it.

The Verdict (1982)
(SPOILERS) Sidney Lumet’s return to the legal arena, with results every bit as compelling as 12 Angry Men a quarter of a century earlier. This time the focus is on the lawyer, in the form of Paul Newman’s washed-up ambulance chaser Frank Galvin, given a case that finally matters to him. In less capable hands, The Verdict could easily have resorted to a punch-the-air piece of Hollywood cheese, but, thanks to Lumet’s earthy instincts and a sharp, unsentimental screenplay from David Mamet, this redemption tale is one of the genre’s very best.

And it could easily have been otherwise. The Verdict went through several line-ups of writer, director and lead, before reverting to Mamet’s original screenplay. There was Arthur Hiller, who didn’t like the script. Robert Redford, who didn’t like the subsequent Jay Presson Allen script and brought in James Bridges (Redford didn’t like that either). Finally, the producers got the hump with the luxuriantly golden-haired star for meetin…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

The simple fact is, your killer is in your midst. Your killer is one of you.

The Avengers 5.12: The Superlative Seven
I’ve always rather liked this one, basic as it is in premise. If the title consciously evokes The Magnificent Seven, to flippant effect, the content is Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, but played out with titans of their respective crafts – including John Steed, naturally – encountering diminishing returns. It also boasts a cast of soon-to-be-famous types (Charlotte Rampling, Brian Blessed, Donald Sutherland), and the return of one John Hollis (2.16: Warlock, 4.7: The Cybernauts). Kanwitch ROCKS!

Never mind. You may be losing a carriage, but he’ll be gaining a bomb.

The Avengers 5.13: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station
Continuing a strong mid-season run, Brian Clemens rejigs one of the dissenting (and departing) Roger Marshall's scripts (hence "Brian Sheriff") and follows in the steps of the previous season's The Girl from Auntie by adding a topical-twist title (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum came out a year earlier). If this is one of those stories where you know from the first who's doing what to whom, the actual mechanism for the doing is a strong and engaging one, and it's pepped considerably by a supporting cast including one John Laurie (2.11: Death of a Great Dane, 3.2: Brief for Murder).

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I freely chose my response to this absurd world. If given the opportunity, I would have been more vigorous.

The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)
(SPOILERS) I suspect, if I hadn’t been ignorant of the story of Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee selling secrets to the Soviets during the ‘70s, I’d have found The Falcon and the Snowman less engaging than I did. Which is to say that John Schlesinger’s film has all the right ingredients to be riveting, including a particularly camera-hogging performance from Sean Penn (as Lee), but it’s curiously lacking in narrative drive. Only fitfully does it channel the motives of its protagonists and their ensuing paranoia. As such, the movie makes a decent primer on the case, but I ended up wondering if it might not be ideal fodder for retelling as a miniseries.

Who are you and why do you know so much about car washes?

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
(SPOILERS) The belated arrival of the Ant-Man sequel on UK shores may have been legitimately down to World Cup programming, but it nevertheless adds to the sense that this is the inessential little sibling of the MCU, not really expected to challenge the grosses of a Doctor Strange, let alone the gargantuan takes of its two predecessors this year. Empire magazine ran with this diminution, expressing disappointment that it was "comparatively minor and light-hitting" and "lacks the scale and ambition of recent Marvel entries". Far from deficits, for my money these should be regard as accolades bestowed upon Ant-Man and the Wasp; it understands exactly the zone its operating in, yielding greater dividends than the three most recent prior Marvel entries the review cites in its efforts at point scoring.

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
(SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison.

Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War, Infinity Wars I & II, Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok. It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions (Iron Man II), but there are points in Age of Ultron where it becomes distractingly so. …

You use a scalpel. I prefer a hammer.

Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)
(SPOILERS) The latest instalment of the impossibly consistent in quality Mission: Impossible franchise has been hailed as the best yet, and with but a single dud among the sextet that’s a considerable accolade. I’m not sure it's entirely deserved – there’s a particular repeated thematic blunder designed to add some weight in a "hero's validation" sense that not only falls flat, but also actively detracts from the whole – but as a piece of action filmmaking, returning director Christopher McQuarrie has done it again. Mission: Impossible – Fallout is an incredible accomplishment, the best of its ilk this side of Mad Max: Fury Road.