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By Elyse Sommer
Updated March 7, 2016

Downton Abbey's Final Season. . . a grand and thoroughly satisfying finale

A Place to Call Home--Season 3 Update
Some Stories Are told As (or more) Effectively Stripped to Their Essence as Big and Splashy
Justin Kurzel's Macbeth Comes US Screens

Some Stories Are told As (or more) Effectively Stripped to Their Essence as Big and Splashy
The sparely staged Broadway revival of the musical adaptation of Alice Walker's book The Color Purple, famous filmed with Whoopi Goldberg in a main role resulted in this feature focusing on this topic of how the small-big question has come into play in other stage shows and films we recently saw. Stage vehicles covered besides The color Purple, are Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge and the musical Dames at Sea. The terrific new film Spotlight , probably the season's most stage actor heavy movie reminded us of a small and very effective stage production of that story, Sin: A Cardinal Deposed. The film Woman in Gold, starring stage and screen favorite Helen Mirren, tackled the big-small question by comparing the film with the book that inspired it. To read the complete feature click here

Downtown Abbey's Final Season. . .
March 7, 2016- Update. You couldn't wish for a happier and more festive finale for a hit that was as much of a phenomenon for television as Hamilton has been for the theater. It left me in such a good mood that I'm not quite ready to look into the new and sure to be much darker House of Cards season

Yes, Lady Edith finally got married, thanks to Lady Mary who previously put the kabosh on it. And what a wedding! The only sad note was that Carsons could no longer perform per his own rigid standards. But not to worry. He remains semi-employed, cared for by his ever sensible wife, and his main butler's functions will now be handled by trembly hands brought back Barrows now worthy of the butler's post. Anna delivered a healthy baby, right in Lady Mary's bed, thus further showing the ever diminishing divide between upstairs and downstairs. The senior romances also blossomed, and the mother/daughter-in-law tensions over Lady Grantham's taking over the hospital ended. Sir Fellowes outdid himself in bringing everyone who ever appeared back for the wedding, which included Lady Rose and even Lady Grantham's American mom via a congratulary letter. Leave it to Tom to help Lady Mary's husband Henry find a career to satisfy his love of cars without the danger of racing them. And who better than the former chauffeur to partner with Henry. As for Tom's own non-existent love life, this too is taken care of by having Lady Edith's editor not only a wedding guest, but catching the bouquet. If this weren't the end, we'd see her and Tom walking down the aisle in the next episode.

And speaking of the next episode. . . Downton may be finished on the home screen but there's talk of a movie. Stay tuned!

February 21, 2016 Update: A mea culpa about my pevious comments. With the penultimate episode Sir Julian Fellowes got his mojo back. So much so, with so many wonderful moments (especially for Lady Mary and the Dowager) that I found myself wishing the episode would go on and on. . .and that somehow the next episode was the finale.

The dowager's stubborn, wrong-headed and, yes, tedious fight to keep the local hospital independent as it's always been comes on top of seeing Maggie Smith in a quite different role — as the crusty, complicated bag lady of the best picture/actress/director/adapted screenplay nominated The Lady In The Van. Smith is a theatrical treasure!

The glimpse of Lord Grantham once again clenching his stomach struck me as an ominous hint that there'll come a time when Lady Violet wished the local hospital were better equipped and staffed as it would be if she'd just stop fighting to keep it in the past.

The best of this week's continually evolving sub-plots revolves around the return of former housemaid Gwen (Rose Leslie) to Downton as an accomplished and happily married woman. She’s there because Rosamund (Samantha Bond) wants Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) to become a trustee of a college for women, for which Gwen’s husband is treasurer. The Crawleys don’t recognize Gwen, because obviously the only one who bothered to really look at and talk to all but key servants was Sybil. Gwen prefers to keep her Downton connection to herself, probably a combination of tact and lingering discomfort at finding herself a luncheon guest.

As it turns out, the jealous Barrow's vindictively letting that paricular cat out of the bag delights the Crawleys, giving Julian Fellowes another chance to show how much less insular these spoiled aristocrats have become over the years. It also results in a lovely opportunity to pay tribute to Lady Sybil who during Season 1 helped Gwen move out of service and into a job as a secretary. This opens the door to another tribute to a beloved but dead character, the love of Lady Mary's life (Dan Stevens) be far behind — perhaps when she finally settles on a new husband (a rather dull Matthew Goode who I liked a lot better in The Good Wife).

While Lily James's Lady Rose is still very much alive, she too is unlikely to get more than a mention as the season continues. You see, she's now the major female character, Natasha Rostova, in the latest adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. Andrew Davies of the Netflix binge hit House of Cards has managed to tell this epic saga in six episodes (probably because the huge cast and opulent costumes and scenery are too expensive for a longer binge fest).

I won't go into all Downton's other rather predictable plot threads that have been picked up. Suffice it to say that as the last episode ended with the Carson-Hughes wedding, this culminates in their return, apparently having survived the "full marriage" conundrum successfully. I can't say this episode left me in a "can't wait" state about any of this, but I remain committed to staying on board.

Downtown Abbey's Final Season
Dare I say it. So far, the farewell season is kind of boring. Even if I could binge on the whole season at once, I'd be unlikely to do so. An hour at a time is more than enough.

Still, I've committed too much time getting to know all these characters not to hang in there. Carson and Mrs. Hughes ARE finally married. No unpleasant surprises as at Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester's wedding, just Tom Branson arriving at the wedding breakfast apparently ready to become a fully committed member of the Grantham family. Besides stealing some of the thunder from the bride and groom (but happily not before Mr. Carson could make this poignant toast to his bride: "That a woman of such grace and charm should entrust her life’s happiness to my unworthy charge passeth all understanding."

Tom's arrival opens the door to questions about what this will do to Mary's job as the estate manager. I'm sure Julian Fellowes will, a usual, milk this for some clunky plot developments.

With Anna pregnant and a Harley Street doctor standing buy to help her carry the child to full term, and Edith taking charge of her magazine with the help of a new suitor, could Fellowes really give these consistent sad sack ladies a happy ending?

And how I can not stay the course for the full season to see how the no longer nasty Barrows fares in his search for a new job. His interview for a job with a somewhat demented lord of a once grand manor was a highlight of the last episode as it proved the design team can do delapidated as well as elegant and stately. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for Barrows to find a partner and come up with an idea for another kind of work, maybe as a maitre de in a posh restaurant?

At any rate the clothes are gorgeous as ever.

ash house
The Bligh estate is actually a heritage-listed property located at Kirkham, on the outskirts of Camden.
A Place to Call Home. . . January 18th Update:
The final episodes are now posted and depending on how much of its melodramatic plots and sub plots you've seen, you can binge on three full seasons. However, true to the genre each episode ends in a cliff hanger-- and Season 3's finale is likely to leave you frustrated. But then bad as things look for Nurse Sarah, bear in mind that another season is coming so she WILL survive! But you'ra going to have to wait well past next Monday to find out how and what's next.

December 30th Update: Several new episodes continue the saga of the Blighs and Nurse Sarah. The talented writers who've taken over for the show's creator Bevan Lee continue to add plot lines with the same appreciation of the rewards of the melodramatic genre. As Lee explained in an interview "I want to fight the rise of melodrama being viewed as a somehow lesser form. To me a good melodrama is a big plum pudding of a show, full of fruit, flavour and the odd surprise threepence." While Elizabeth Bligh is no longer the nominal villainess and Nurse Sarah becomes almost saintly in dealing with continued bad luck, A Place to Call Home hardly lacks that vital ingredient in any solid melodrama. In fact George's anti-Semitic asister-in-law Regina proves to be not just as a schemer but an Über-villain.

The new episodes and some of the plot complications unfoldingt: Too Old to Dream in which Sarah decides not to go through with the abortion but meets a desperate young woman and her mother at the clinic. After a debate about art, Sir Richard challenges Carolyn to write a critique for one of his newspapers and Olivia dreams about her encounter with Lloyd.. . Living in the Shadow in which René emains cold to Sarah following the revelation that she's carrying George's baby. After one of Regina's threats goes too far, she retreats to the farmhouse but still proves dangerous. Anna confides in Olivia about her unhappiness, accidentally disclosing the contents of Andrew's letter. And in case you're wondering about Ash Park, the Bligh's manor house. . . it's an actual estate called Camelot, a heritage-listed property located at Kirkham on the outskirts of Camden. It was built in 1888 and has also been used as a setting for the 2008 Baz Luhrmann film Australia.

PREVIOUS POSTING ABOUT THE SERIES: Season 3 of the addictively entertaining series from Australia is a semi-binge

With public television still devoting Sundays to past Downton Abbey episodes before launching the final season, Acorn TV Media has begun streaming season 3 of Australia's answer to family dramas on imposing estates. While you can still binge watch seasons 1 and 2 in their entirety, season 3 is being streamed 3 episodes at a time, always on Mondays with the DVD scheduled to be released in April of 2006.

Since the popularity of the show has reprieved A Place to Call Home from being a 2-series hit, you need to go back to the final, and now rewritten, episode of Series 2. George is shot, and how it happens and how he survives establishes that there'll be no shortage of melodramatic complications in the life of Nurse Sarah Adams and her seriously shell-shocked husband René Nordman (Benjamin Winspear) and the Bligh family.

While the problems for the various characters, especially Nurse Sarah, pile up to the point of overload the key characters are still wonderfully nuanced. And the actors playing them continue to be eminently watchable.

The terrific Noni Hazelhurst who plays Elizabeth Bligh, the villain of the initial series, has now let the always present touch of humanity come to the fore. Could her taking off her fur collared coat to help out in an attractive older gentleman's soup kitchen bring a late in life romance? But, more importantly, what's a meolodrama without a villain, so there's Jenni Baird as Regina, the scheming, anti-Semitic sister-in-law of George Bligh (Brett Climo).

With George newly focused on a political career that may help him better cope with his loss of Sarah, Regina's past experience as a diplomat's wife may well help her win the prize she's after: Succeeding her dead sister as Mrs. George Bligh. While George has the right stuff to be the sort of public servant we'd all like to see in office, being supported by the nasty Regina and a reactionary power broker indicates trouble ahead. Elections having a way of exposing things best kept strictly in the family, also threatens to cause problems for the homosexual James Bligh (David Berry), his wife Olivia (Arianwen Parkes-Lockwood). And if that weren't enough the sexually frustrated Olivia becomes smitten with a sexy portrait painter.

Even the blissfully in love young couple —, Anna Bligh (Abby Earl) and Gino Poletti (Aldo Mignone)— who overcame the cultural clashes of Italian farmers and landed Aussie gentry, are on board with potential problems. While Gino's plans to grow grapes promise a poor boy-turned-wine baron twist, Gino's rigid Catholicism is a fly in the happy ever after story. Even if James's treatment to "cure" his sexual nature turned out to be successful (which it obviously can't be!), Gino can't deal with his revulsion.

Episode 1, The Things We Do for Love, deals mostly with the aftermath of George's injury.
Episode 2, L'chaim, to Life, has a tender scene that holds out hope for Anna and René but there's an unanticipated pregnancy to get in the way.
Episode 3, Somewhere Beyond the Sea, segues back and forth between Sarah in Sydney trying to deal with her "problem" and Ash Park, with an interlude in that afore mentioned soup kitchen.

I'm hooked! How about you? Oh, and I did tell you, didn't I, that there's also a Season 4 to feed our addiction.

Our take on A Place to Call Home Seasons 1 and 2
This is a chance for Downton Abbey fans to binge on a family drama full of family secrets, relationships complicated by money, class and religious differences. The Bligh family is Australian so they have no official titles, but their Ash Park estate is mighty grand. It's set in early 1950s rural Australia with post world war II traumas and rapidly changing social customs rife with high drama. And yes, there are lots of eye popping costumes.

The saga of the Blighs and those who become entangled with them begins with a shipboard encounter between the Blighs on their way home from a wedding and a beautiful nurse, Sarah Adams (the terrific Marta Dusseldorp) that sets things up for the soon to unfold central events. There's an autocratic Bligh matriarch who is pretty mucch the villain of the series except that she's so fully dimensioned by the show's creator, Bevan Lee, that there's room for the superb Noni Hazlehurst to make her a decidedly human villain. George (the attractive Brett Climo) the widowed head of the Bligh sheep farm's business is obviously smitten with Sarah who, like the various Blighs has her own past to contend with.

While most of the gradually revealed surprises are fairly predictable, you're hooked and likely to watch them non-stop. The series is pungently atmospheric in its depiction of 1950s still caught in the painful war years: George Bligh's wife was killed by a Japanese bomb, the town doctor is still haunted by his years as a Japanese POW, and Sarah's past includes a stint as a Resistance worker and concentration camp inmate. Anti-semitism and treatment, or rather mistreatment, of homosexuals adds strong thematic underpinnings. Despite the dark subtext, A Place to Call Home is essentially a romantic, consistently absorbing drama given strong support by a uniformly top drawer cast. <

Series one and two are available at Acorn on line:
Click here for Series 1 & click here for Series 2.

Justin Kurzel's Macbeth comes to US Screens
The Australian director and screenwriter Justin Kurzel premiered his Macbeth at Cannes in May and now brings it to the U. S. in time for the holidays. Following in the vein of Roman Polanski's 1971 film of the same name, it is a gritty retelling of Shakespeare's Scottish Play. And with two big name actors on board — Oscar nominated actor Michael Fassbender as the Thane and Oscar award-winning actress Marion Cotillard as the Queen — this new film is bound to create buzz around the eggnog bowl this season.

The cinematography is stunning! It was shot on location in Scotland and England, and captures the fair and foul weather that sweeps over those rugged landscapes. You can practically smell the Scottish highlands and English countryside in some sequences, and feel the gusty winds and rain pelting down in various outdoor scenes. And to add even more atmosphere and mystery, there's a wash of reddish light in pivotal frames that serves as a visual metaphor for the bloody tragedy in progress under the tyrant Macbeth.

This is Kurzel's first go at Shakespeare. But it's no accident that he's chosen Macbeth out of the canon. After all, his first film Snowtown (based on the true life story of the Snowtown murders), was a grisly but fascinating study of a serial murderer in Australia. It brought him much critical acclaim, and marked him as a rising star in the film world. Kurzel has an uncanny talent for creating menacing portraits of murderers on the big screen. And his new Macbeth is sure to cement his reputation. What's more, Kurzel has a modern-day spin—and diagnosis—for the Bard's deranged protagonist: post-traumatic stress disorder. No, the term hadn't been coined yet in 11th - century Scotland. But Macbeth certainly manifests many of the symptoms of this mental condition that is now widely accepted by the medical world, seriously researched, and treated.

Although Kurzel is faithful to Shakespeare's text, he takes creative license, now and then, to drive home his own vision. In fact, the film opens, not with the Weird Sisters gathering on the heath, but Macbeth and Lady Macbeth at a burial rite for a stillborn child. Whether it is their child remains unclear. But it clearly brings to the fore that the Macbeths are grieving over a child and later resonates with the witches' prediction that Macbeth will wear a barren crown. Kurzel threads the plot with more innovations: Duncan's brutal murder happens on screen and the Porter scene gets jettisoned, along with its wit and levity. In short, Kurzel gives you a relentlessly dark look at the ancient myth and forces you to confront its discomfiting elements through a new prism.

German actor Fassbender and French actress Cotillard have the right chemistry to bring Shakespeare's most famous power couple alive on screen. Fassbender is commanding as Macbeth, and Cotillard (Natalie Portman was originally slated for the role but bowed out when funding for a film she was directing came through) is well-matched as his ambitious wife. No, they don't come to this project with a background in Shakespearean acting and don't affect Scottish burrs to define their characters. And though their delivery of the verse (flavored with in their native accents) might not measure up to the polished thespians at the Royal Shakespeare Company, they surely pass muster with their cinematic chops here. The rest of the cast hold their own but it is definitely Fassbender and Cotillard who are the most mesmerizing on screen.

There's no question that Kurzel has scored with his new Shakespearean film. You might nitpick over some of his directorial choices at times, but his retooled Scottish Play gives a fresh pioneer spirit and badlands flavor to the classic.

Macbeth opens in selected theaters across the U.S. on December 4, 2015. Running time is 1 hour; 53 minutes. Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on preview filming on 11/23/15
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