Our Rating: 4 out of 5
Reviewer: Charity Bishop
Based on a well-known children's book series by Lucy M. Boston, From Time to Time is a sentimental and touching story about ghostly encounters in the aftermath of wartime.
Although WWII is drawing to an end, there are still a number of British soldiers unaccounted for -- among them is the father of young Tolly (Alex Etel), who has been sent to live with his grandmother (Maggie Smith) while his own mother attempts to use her political connections to discern his father's whereabouts. Moving into the old manor house, Tolly becomes fascinated with its romantic and frequently tragic history. The paintings in the main hall tell a story of past generations and over a hundred year old mystery. But that is not all the secrets the old house contains, for after a ghostly encounter, Tolly becomes convinced the place is haunted. But it seems to contain more magic than that, for sometimes he encounters specters... and sometimes he is the ghost in their world. Weaving in and out of time, he becomes involved in the lives of the great old family that once lived there...
With a mean-spirited son and a blind daughter to look after, not to mention his bored, aristocratic wife (Carice van Houten) feeling neglected, it is all Captain Oldknow (Hugh Bonneville) can do to look after his affairs when he is on shore leave. On his most recent trip home he has brought a surprise for his daughter Susan (Eliza Bennett) -- a young Negro boy escaped from slavers, who will become her "eyes" and her companion. His son Sefton (Douglas Booth) takes an immediate disliking for Jacob (Kwayedza Kureya) but he becomes invaluable to Susan. However, the malicious butler Caxton (Dominc West) is considering how best to be rid of him. Then comes the theft, and the fire, and no one knows the answers, but maybe Tolly, slipping in and out of his own time, can discern the truth before it is too late.
Julian Fellowes is best known for his recent sensation Downton Abbey, but his adaptation of the novel is a charming one, and he proves a capable director. Emotion and suspense are present, but he does not distract his audience with peculiar camera angles, merely points them at the actors and allow their performances to shine through. It's quite a good cast -- Timothy Spall and Harriet Walter make notable appearances, but mostly I was impressed with the main characters. Maggie Smith and Hugh Bonneville are always good, but here we get to see a different side of her, playing a grandmother without a saucy side. Fans of the book may be frustrated with some of the changes made to the story, but as an independent production it's quite engaging, even if it is a little bit of a tearjerker toward the end. There is not much in the way of content, apart from a few mild abuses of deity, but the notable emphasis on ghostly encounters may be unsettling.
It is never clarified whether or not Tolly is experiencing ghostly visions in the flashbacks (one thinks not, since he is capable of interaction in the past) or actually crossing back and forth between the past and present, but he does literally encounter ghosts as well -- see through spirits, and in one instance they can be quite startling. In inquiring whether or not Gran believes in them, she says of course she does, but the housekeeper is adamant that they do not exist. Some people can see them, others cant. After the loss of her jewels, Maria visits a fortune teller who lays out tarot cards to help her (she is told that once she embroiders an image of the house using the hair of every guest there the night they were stolen, she will have her answer). Some thematic situations are present -- the children can be quite cruel to one another, and in one instance almost lose their lives in a fire. We learn of several deaths. It's hinted at that a woman may be involved with another man behind her husband's back.
Although at times it moves a little slowly and the ending is a tad predictable, I enjoyed this film. It seems more lighthearted in many ways than your customary WWII drama and introduces some wonderful concepts, as well as exploring slightly more mature themes such as forgiveness, acceptance, racism, and coming together in a hard time, with little gusts of humor throughout. To my knowledge, it is not yet available in the United States but I am sure that with such a remarkable cast, it is only a matter of time.