A review by Nalini Haynes
Tolly (Alex Etel) arrives at a train station during World War II, to be met by Boggis (Timothy Spall, Wormtail in Harry Potter), who is Tolly’s grandmother’s servant. Tolly’s grandmother is the indomitable Dame Maggie Smith. Shortly after arriving at Grandmother’s manor, called Green Knowe, Tolly discovers that, from time to time, he can travel through time. This time travel is for reasons completely unknown with no trigger except ‘plot’.
In the past everyone is dressed in Regency attire, placing the movie in the early 19th century. Tolly meets his great-something-aunt, Susan (Eliza Bennet). Susan is blind, despised by her mother Maria (Carice van Houten, Melisandre in Game of Thrones). Susan’s father, Captain Oldknowe (Hugh Bonneville, Robert Crawley in Downton Abbey and the Pirate King in Galavant), dotes on her. Although the Captain is set up to be something of a saint, he despises his son Sefton (Douglas Booth, Mr Bingley in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). This is a recipe for familial harmony. The Captain brings Susan an escaped slave to be her playmate: Jacob (Kwayedza Kureya, Max in Boxed In). The Captain treats Jacob like a son to the chagrin of his wife and his actual son.
One of the many problems with From Time To Time is the past setting is over a century previous to the ‘present’ and yet Tolly also meets Boggis, Grandmother’s handyman and not a ghost.
Maria’s profligate spending in Regency England tumble the family towards ruin. The butler (Dominic West) incites Sefton to torment and torture Jacob.
Meanwhile, in 1944, Grandmother talks about selling Green Knowe because her debts exceed her bills. And Tolly waits for news of his father, missing in action in the war.
The Captain brings Jacob home like one might bring home a rescued puppy. This is highly disturbing and extremely racist because Jacob is black. The Captain unequivocally adopts Jacob as his son; this may be informal but it is definitely emotional and practical. Still, this relationship is disturbing: Jacob is not much more than a service dog and friend to Susan and Sefton’s victim. The only time Jacob comes into his own as a three-dimensional character is when he retaliates against Sefton, part of which involves climbing through the manor’s chimney network. Climbing this network foreshadows climatic action, reducing Jacob’s agency. (See the show/hide text below for a spoiler also commenting on some more of the racial issues in From Time To Time.)
Susan’s relationship with her mother is exposed upon first meeting them. Maria insults Susan to the Captain while excusing Sefton’s appalling behaviour, traits that are consistent up to the climax. Susan arrives to greet her father with a rope tied around her waist. Apparently her mother had her tied down because, she claimed, Susan could not manage the stairs. Susan pointed out that she was perfectly capable of using the stairs. The Captain said to burn the rope and yet he failed to protect Susan, leaving her vulnerable to similar abuse, when subsequently absent. The message is mixed: tying up the disabled girl is not good but protecting her from her mother and brother is too hard.
Even worse: Susan is really just a narrative prosthetic.
Why a narrative prosthetic?
Susan dies at the end, fulfilling Darke’s ‘normality drama’ trope*. Tolly’s character arc is not unlike Charlie Babbit’s (Tom Cruise) character in Rain Man. After his brother teaches him to be a better person, Charlie sends his brother back to the institution ‘for his sake’. Susan helps Tolly accept his disadvantages because she’s blind and he’s not. Susan and Jacob facilitate Tolly’s triumphant ending. It’s all about the nondisabled character. Conflict caused by disability is resolved when the disabled character is removed by death, geography or disabled assimilation. Not nondisabled people changing to accommodate the disabled character. Susan’s mother accepts Susan after Susan nearly dies in the fire then Susan actually dies. JJ IS WATCHING YOU. HE DOES NOT APPROVE. (JJ from Speechless.)
Also Jacob dies at the end after he’s fulfilled his role as Magical Negro. A ‘magical negro’ is a supporting stock character who comes to the aid of white protagonists in a film. Jacob’s role is to help Susan and, ultimately, help Tolly complete his hero’s journey.
I’m pretty sure killing black characters after they’ve fulfilled their purpose is a racial parallel to the ableist ‘normality drama’. I guess we should be grateful that Jacob does not die first as in the ‘black guy dies first’ trope. Instead he dies hours after Susan. When he’s no longer needed.
Note: I searched for an #OwnVoices criticism of this movie but was overwhelmed by criticism of other movies. I asked on Twitter but haven’t received a recommendation to link to yet.
Jacob and Susan together
Jacob and Susan are at their best when Susan is dressed in boy’s garb climbing a tree, taught to climb by Jacob although the ‘magical negro’ trope is in play . Then Susan’s victory is diminished by her father lifting her down from the tree. Despite this alloyed victory, Jacob and Susan remain two dimensional characters whose sole purpose is to enable Tolly — the straight white nondisabled gentrified male — to overcome ‘hardship’ and to teach him to cope with what is to come.
Based on a book
Throughout the movie the story seemed familiar. Wikipedia informed me that
From Time to Time is a 2009 British fantasy drama film directed by Julian Fellowes and adapted from Lucy M. Boston’s children’s novel The Chimneys of Green Knowe (1958).
Upon realising the novel was published in 1958, I realised I must have read it at St Marys District School where our minuscule library held more old books than new. The movie’s opening scene evokes other books from that era of my reading: Carrie’s War and even the opening to the Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Nostalgia aside, and despite Maggie Smith trying hard not to steal every scene where she featured, I could not excuse poor storytelling made worse by the compacted time-limited nature of the film medium. This story was written — more or less — in the era of Charlotte Sometimes but makes less sense. At least Charlotte travelled through time when she slept in her bed, lending some consistency instead of mid-scene transitions with no more justification other than ‘because plot!’
Nothing can redeem From Time To Time’s plot, certainly not its microscopic victories over racism and ableism that fail to balance its racism and ableism. Is it bad to admit that I somewhat enjoyed this movie for its nostalgia, time travel, costumes, setting and actors despite the racism and ableism? This movie is definitely not a must-see unless you’re a time travel tragic like me. I strongly advise A DISCUSSION about race and disability with kids who watch the movie, a lot like discussions recommended by Dunn regarding high school literature featuring disability.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
Directed and written by Julian Fellowes (writer of Gosford Park, Young Victoria, Downton Abbey)
Cast: Alex Etel (Cranford), Maggie Smith, Dominic West, Timothy Spall, Eliza Bennett, Carice van Houten, Hugh Bonneville, Harriet Walter, Pauline Collins, Christopher Villiers, Elisabeth Dermot Walsh
* Normality drama is defined in this essay although disabled women wrote about the trope earlier without naming it as such.
Darke, P. (1998). Understanding cinematic representations of disability. The disability reader: Social science perspectives, 181-197.