Given the current hoopla around his smash hit series Downton Abbey, there is probably not a better time to be releasing Julian Fellowes' 2009 adaptation of Lucy M. Boston's young adult novel The Chimneys of Green Knowe, From Time to Time. Not only does the film feature a number of the Downton actors, but the film is shot in Athelhampton House, one of those monumental old mansions that have been the settings for Fellowes' best known work. Unfortunately, From Time to Time, while not without merit, doesn't quite measure up to Downton Abbey or Gosford Park.
Set in England in 1944 with the war in Europe winding down, 13 year old Tolly is sent to live on the family's decaying country estate with his estranged paternal grandmother while his mother tries to get information about his father who is missing in action. Things get complicated when Tolly discovers that the house is haunted by the spirits of some of his ancestors from 1809. Not only can they appear to him in 1944, but he is able to join them in 1809. He can aid them in their troubles; they can help him with his. From Time to Time then is both a ghost story and a time travel story.
It is a testament to Fellowes' abilities as a writer and as a director that he can even manage to get you to buy into the story's fantasy long enough to suspend disbelief, let alone take it seriously. Certainly the film makes a serious attempt to say something about dealing with loss and the importance of family, but it gets lost in the complications of the narrative. There is simply too much going on for any real impact.
Still there is a top notch cast, and their performances are strong. Led by the matriarch of British actors, Maggie Smith as Tolly's grandmother Linnet, the cast brings life to the fantasy. Smith is admirable as a woman struggling to connect with her grandson while facing the possible loss of her son. Alex Etel is effective as Tolly, even as he struggles some to keep up with Dame Maggie. Timothy Spall, of Harry Potter fame, is Boggis, gardener, handy man and general factotum. Pauline Collins is Miss Tweedle, the cook and general servant.
The 1809 segments feature Hugh Bonneville as Captain Oldknow the well meaning head of the family, a character not much different than the Earl of Grantham and Dominic West (The Wire) as the villainous butler, Caxton. Unfortunately, the script gives them little opportunity to stretch their talents. Eliza Bennett is Susan, Oldknow's blind young daughter and Kwayedza Kureya is Jacob an escapee from a slave market saved by the Captain and brought back to England to be his daughter's companion and eyes. Downton's Alan Leech has a small part as one of the Boggis ancestors.
In some respects it is the house itself that is the star of the film. It is almost as if the house has a life of its own. "It's a funny old house," Boggis tells Tolly. And when the RAF is leaving the house which they have commandeered as their headquarters, the officer in charge explains that they were careful not to leave it in bad shape. "The house wouldn't let us," he says. More often than not, when houses are treated as living entities--The Haunting of Hill House, "The Fall of the House of Usher"—they are associated with evil, not so here. It is a house with secrets and the unraveling of those secrets is the key to the story. The house, though haunted and decaying, is the symbol of the family's roots, the glue that will keep them united through the ages.