Worthy films for the Weekend
Downton Abbey and Into the Weeds
By Marc Glassman
Downton Abbey: A New Era
Julian Fellowes, writer and co-producer
Simon Curtis, director
Starring: Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary Crawley Talbot), Maggie Smith (Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham), Hugh Bonneville (Robert Crawley, 7th Earl of Grantham), Laura Carmichael (Edith Crawley Pelham, Marchioness of Hexham), Elizabeth McGovern (Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham), Allen Leech (Tom Branson), Tuppence Middleton (Lucy Branson), Dominic West (Guy Dexter), Laura Haddock (Myrna Dalgleish), Hugh Dancy (Jack Barber), Kevin Doyle (Joseph Molesley), Raquel Cassidy (Phyllis Baxter), Jim Carter (Charles Carson), Nathalie Baye (Madame Montmirail), Jonathan Zaccai (Marquis de Montmirail), Imelda Staunton (Maud, Lady Bagshaw), Penelope Wilton (Isobel Grey, Lady Merton), Robert James-Collier (Thomas Barrow), Michael Fox (Andy Parker), Lesley Nicol (Beryl Patmore)
It must be hard to remain inspired after you’ve created a successful franchise. While watching Downton Abbey: A New Era, the sweetly lethargic latest entry in the beloved British costume drama series, I had time to wonder how Julian Fellowes might feel about continuing a complex narrative that has seemingly run its course.
From 2010 to 2015, Fellowes drew in audiences around the world for his evocation of the members of the Granthams, an aristocratic English family, negotiating their lives from the Edwardian era to World War One, through to the Spanish flu pandemic and into the political and social strife of the 1920s, including Irish independence, the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the beginning of the decline of the class system in Britain. As a series, Downton Abbey was a phenom, a hit on America’s PBS, England’s ITV and our own Vison-TV, during the last period when global sales and viewings would arise from prestigious TV channels.
That was a time when one would have thought, that’s it: Downton Abbey was great, but it’s gone now. No one thinks that way now. How many new Spidermans have we seen in the past 20 years? The answer is three, in case you’re wondering: Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland. If a drama (To Kill a Mockingbird) or a musical (Hamilton) or a series of comic books (The Avengers, Batman) is successful in one media, transfer it to another one. And if one works, the only thought is: how many can we do?
So, we get Downton Abbey being revived as films, not a new TV series. Right after Fellowes has finished launching an American variation of the original show as The Gilded Age, here he is, back with a second in a cinema series based on the old TV hit. The only question is the same that British monarchists ask every day, “is there life in the old girl yet?”
If we’re talking about Maggie Smith, the acerbic and adored dowager of the Grantham estate, the reply is a resounding “yes.” One of the two main plots in the latest epic revolves around Maggie’s Violet—her youth and what exactly happened 50 years earlier in the south of France to inspire the Marquis de Montmirail to give a villa to her in his will. While some members of the family sojourn off to the villa to find out more—oh! to be there just as COVID began to fade away—the rest are dealing with a film shoot in the castle.
When Downton Abbey created such a furor a decade ago, the other major character to emerge besides the dowager was one of her granddaughters, the haughty Mary, whose beauty (and his poor heart) caused one of her lovers to die in her arms during a first season episode that absolutely made the show a scandalous success. Michelle Dockery’s Mary, now married and a mother but still attractive, takes the lead in handling the shooting of a major British film production just as the talkies are supplanting the great era of silent cinema.
Fellowes and director Simon Curtis skillfully introduce Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock), a screen beauty who has a commoner’s accent, the sexually subversive lead actor Guy Dexter (a very confident Dominic West) and a handsome director, Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy). After some bits of small drama and humour, it turns out the film they’re making has lurched into a crisis: production will close down unless the production can shift immediately into a being a talkie. This leads into a crisis for the lead actress and a role for the aristocratic Mary as a new film voice. If this sounds familiar to film buffs, then yes, we’re seeing a bit of a homage to Singin’ In the Rain combined with the problems Hitchcock encountered during the making of Blackmail.
While these two major storylines are played out, many romance and marriages are established among quite a few of Downton Abbey’s long-established characters. It’s a wonder that Julian Fellowes can keep the plots and characters going—and perhaps it’s no surprise that the film lacks pace, and the major storylines aren’t all that consequential. Watching the film with an audience, it’s clear that those who adore the series are still enjoying the upstairs-downstairs environment, the large number of protagonists and the evocation of an England of a century ago. British actors, with their stage training and TV backgrounds, make even dull scenes feel charming throughout the film.
Downton Abbey: A New Era is a hopeful title for this series. It feels that Julian Fellowes is finishing up something, not starting anything original. But perhaps I’m wrong. If the box office is good—and this film is constructed in such a way that fans should be pleased—then, another film is inevitable. That’s what franchises are all about.
Into the Weeds
Dewayne “Lee” Johnson vs. Monsanto Company
(Canada, 96 min.)
DIR: Jennifer Baichwal
Featuring: Dewayne “Lee” Johnson, Brent Wisner, Michael J. Miller, Robin Greenwald, Gary Gadd, Richard Elenko, Raymond Owl, Araceli Johnson, DeLois Harvey
How do you get an audience to love a green film? It’s a huge question for anyone who wants to make a doc about the environment. While most people pay lip service to the cause, wanting to protect the planet and paying to see a movie about it, are two very different things. The common wisdom—or should I call it prejudice–is that a film focused on the environment won’t be fun and if you couple that narrative approach with an attack on corporations, you may lose even more ticket sales. So, what do you do?
If you’re Jennifer Baichwal, a Planet in Focus environmental film festival Eco-hero recipient and the co-director of films with globally recognized photographer Ed Burtynsky, who espouses the same green sentiments, the question of audience engagement is not academic. What strategies can be employed to turn a worthwhile film into one that people actually want to see?
For Into the Weeds, Baichwal has come up with a brilliant plan for engaging audiences. She’s made a courtroom drama and who doesn’t love those? People want to see To Kill A Mockingbird on stage as well as screen and let’s face it, a happy story it is not. Think of some of your favourites: Kramer vs. Kramer, Inherit the Wind, 12 Angry Men, Michael Clayton, Erin Brockovich. Happy? Didn’t people flock to those?
While Into the Weeds won’t threaten those box office revenues, it’s reasonable to assume that more people will come to see a film about a poor, sincere Black man taking on in court a White corporation than most environmental films. Let’s hope that’s the case because this is a film well worth seeing. Baichwal’s feature is about a lot of things: the exploitation of workers—farmers and factory labourers; the deliberate misuse of consequential information by companies that knew better; the heartbreakingly sincere tales of agricultural and urban working people whose best efforts were subverted by profit making institutions that literally couldn’t care whether they live or die and, of course, racism, which underlies most everything that occurs in our present-day political economy.
Like many courtroom dramas, Into the Weeds is a compelling and very relatable narrative. Baichwal introduces us to Lee Johnson, an African American who was born to make music but needed to make money since he had to provide for his wife, two children, and delightful mother DeLois. In order to make ends meet, Johnson began to work for Monsanto, a company with a problematic past. All went well until a traffic accident involving his vehicle created spillage in Johnson’s delivery truck, forcing him to plunge into the liquid called Ranger Pro in order to stop the flow before it could affect the kids in a grade school.
Johnson’s heroic gesture will probably kill him. He’s been diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, an aggressive cancer that causes death in 72% of its recipients within five years. It is clear that “Lee” was affected by a non-selective herbicide, a glyphosate, which eliminates weeds and, it turns out, much more, including human lives. The product he was dealing with, Ranger Pro, is derived from Roundup, which Monsanto has successfully marketed to farmers all across North America.
Roundup kills weeds. No doubt about it. It may kill other things, too, including farmers. Into the Weeds toggles back and forth from Lee Johnson’s story to those who have been affected by contact with the glyphosate, including Canadian prairies farmers Gary Gadd and Richard Elenko, both of whom have been diagnosed with the same cancer as Lee Johnson, but continue to use Roundup because it makes crop growing so much easier. Such is the price people will pay to keep their businesses and feed people.
Who created this Faustian bargain? As the immensely influential film The Corporation established almost two decades ago, no one person is to blame. You can call a corporation a psychopath as that doc did, and it’s clear that profit motivate institutions, as well as people, now as it did then. If you’d like, you can blame Monsanto—and, in fact, I do. It’s now been revealed in a series of documents called “The Monsanto Papers” that the company had employed scientists to test out the effects of the herbicide in Roundup and concluded that cancer would result after long or close contact with it. Of course, Monsanto didn’t reveal the results of their studies, until they were forced to do so.
Into the Weeds is a complex story, involving the fate of human beings like Lee Johnson, Gary Gadd and Richard Elenko, the responsibilities of huge corporations, extremely problematic herbicides, the future of agriculture, and the necessity of being transparent with each other. The courtroom drama spells this out and one must give kudos to such lawyers as Brent Wisner, Michael J. Miller and Robin Greenwald for establishing the truth at Johnson’s trial.
Baichwal’s film makes it clear that Lee Johnson’s case was a mass tort, a lawsuit that involves many plaintiffs. A finding in favour of Johnson would affect numerous cases because it would establish a legal precedent. So, a win for Lee Johnson in the millions of dollars wouldn’t just help him and his family; it would aid countless others involved in other court cases and ultimately change the practices of the corporation itself.
In the end, Baichwal’s compulsively watchable doc does offer us a winner in a trial. But the situation remains alive. Monsanto has been bought by Bayer, an even larger corporation, once famous for its aspirin. Monsanto, in its day, was known for “Agent Orange,” the defoliant, which affected three million people during the Vietnam War, causing severe birth defects in over 150 thousand Vietnamese children. Its final act as a corporation was losing millions in legal cases for its use of Roundup. Was Monsanto an ethical institution?
Into the Weeds is a wonderfully well-made film involving a complex yet important story. Hey—it’s a courtroom drama. You’ll enjoy seeing it.