'From Time to Time'

Supernatural events churn up antique secrets in the family-friendly Brit drama "From Time to Time."

When a boy (Alex Etel) visits the ancestral manse of his grandmother (Maggie Smith) during WWII, supernatural events churn up antique secrets in the family-friendly Brit drama “From Time to Time.” Writer-helmer Julian Fellowes’ methodical sophomore effort has a pleasantly bittersweet tang, but it’s resolutely old-fashioned entertainment in every way. The tony cast will rep a plus for theatrical outings, but the pic’s best bet may be to market itself as the perfect choice for seniors when the likes of “Harry Potter” or the latest noisy cartoon won’t do for a Christmastime date with the grandkids.

Based on Lucy M. Boston’s 1954 novel for younger readers, “The Chimneys of Green Knowe,” the pic touches lightly but squarely on death and loss, which will make it less amenable to viewers under 8 or so. Literary-minded tweens and nostalgia-minded adults are likely to get the most out of this period piece, which harks back to the wholesome pics (“Flash the Sheep Dog” repping a typical title) made by the Children’s Film Foundation, the Brit nonprofit film unit that had its heyday in the late ’50s and ’60s.

In 1944 rural Blighty, pubescent Mancunian lad Tolly (sturdy Etel, from “Millions” and the recent serial “Cranford”) arrives at Green Knowe, the crumbling but august manor house of his grandmother, Linnet Oldknow (Smith, adorably waspish), to stay out the war. Tolly’s dad, Linnet’s son, is missing in action, and Tolly and Linnet’s shared hope for his survival helps bridge the gap between them, especially given that Tolly knows Linnet didn’t approve of her son marrying Tolly’s lower-middle-class mother (Elisabeth Dermot Walsh).

Turns out Tolly can see dead people. Specifically, a group of ghosts, Tolly’s direct ancestors, from the Regency period, who also can sometimes see him, as they live out their own story in their time within Green Knowe’s walls. Recognizing their descriptions, Linnet unflappably explains who they were: patriarch Capt. Oldknow (Hugh Bonneville), his proud wife, Maria (Carice van Houten), and their children, cruel-natured Sefton (Douglas Booth) and his kind-but-blind sister Susan (Eliza Bennett). Back in the Napoleonic period, when the captain brought back an escaped slave boy (Kwayedza Kureya) to be a companion to Susan, it threw the household into disarray, particularly raising the ire of butler Caxton (Dominic West).

No one in the pic’s present day, including faithful retainers Mrs. Tweedie (Pauline Collins) and gardener-handyman Boggis (Timothy Spall, essaying a fair Norfolk accent), has much to do except tell Tolly stories while waiting out the war. Consequently, the corseted subplot must do the heavy dramatic lifting, with intrigues, jewel thefts and a fairly thrilling escape from a burning wing of the house at the climax, but Fellowes’ script nimbly stitches the two strands together. The author’s message of tolerance is delivered with a light hand, while Fellowes continues to show himself most at home in posh country houses, after his contempo-set directorial debut, “Separate Lies,” and his best-known screenplay, the Robert Altman-helmed “Gosford Park.”

Though the buildup leads auds to expect otherwise, the pic’s last reel ends on a somber note, admirable in its way but possibly too much of a downer to ensure positive word of mouth.

Craft contributions are quietly pro in all departments, without any one element standing out. Locations used in Dorset, Maidenhead and Cheam are seamlessly integrated with studio sets.

From Time to Time

U.K.

Production

An Ealing Studios presentation, in association with Prescience and Limelight, of a Lionhead Prods. Film, in association with Fragile Films. (International sales: Ealing Studios Intl., London.) Produced by Liz Trubridge, Julian Fellowes, Paul Kingsley. Executive producers, James Spring, Barnaby Thompson, Paul Brett, Ian Robinson, Tim Smith, Michael Henry. Directed, written by Julian Fellowes, based on the novel "The Chimneys of Green Knowe" by Lucy M. Boston.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Alan Almond; editor, John Wilson; music, Ilan Eshkeri; production designer, Luciana Arrighi; art directors, Kate Grimble, John Hill; set decorator, Ian Whittaker; sound (Dolby Digital), John Rodda; supervising sound editor, Zane Hayward. Reviewed at London Film Festival (Film on the Square), Oct. 15, 2009. Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Maggie Smith, Alex Etel, Dominic West, Timothy Spall, Carice van Houten, Eliza Bennett, Hugh Bonneville, Harriet Walter, Pauline Collins, Kwayedza Kureya, Douglas Booth, Elisabeth Dermot Walsh.

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