Not quite punchy enough for children and far too glowingly located on the twee side of melodrama for the grown ups, this family film from Downton Abbey producer Julian Fellowes mixes Regency ghosts and a rambling, secret-filled mansion with disappointingly lackluster results.
Adapted for the screen, directed and produced by Fellowes (who seems to specialise in period drama, having also written Gosford Park and The Young Victoria), the story comes from the much-loved children’s book The Chimneys of Green Knowe by Lucy Boston. It tells the tale of Tolly (Alex Etel), a 13-year-old boy sent to live with his grandmother in 1944, when his father is listed as missing in action in World War II. The quietly knowing Mrs. Oldknow (Maggie Smith) lives in a huge old house that’s been in the family for years and which harbours ghosts and secrets – the biggest of which is the loss of the family’s priceless jewels following a terrible fire back in the 1800s. With the house too expensive to maintain, Mrs. Oldknow is about to sell up but she, her gardener Boggis (Timothy Spall), and housekeeper Mrs Tweedle (Pauline Collins) allow Tolly to explore its many nooks and crannies. Meeting ghosts of family past, Tolly finds he can be magically transported back in time to 1809 where he spends time with Susan (Eliza Bennett) a girl of his own age, and with her help he is able to slowly unlock the mysteries of the house.
Although the production design and costumes are gorgeous and the cast includes the talents of Hugh Bonneville and Dominic West alongside Smith and Spall, Fellowes keeps his direction on the bland side of charm – avoiding any hint of gothic pep or dramatic action that would have spiced up proceedings. The overwritten script leaves Tolly with little to do other than guide us through the steady reveal of the backstory, which comes as a series of sometimes unconnected adventures shot in a hazy golden glow. The music is unbearably saccharine at times and whilst it’s a pleasure to watch Smith play the wise old lady, her Mrs Oldknow – like all the characters in the film – lack the sparkle needed to make us engage in their world.
Its refreshing to see a film find ways to seamlessly take us from one time to another without having to resort to fancy special effects, but with Harry Potter 7.2 looming fast over the family film horizon, this one could have done with a bit more oomph and a bit more charm.