The Amazing Mr. Blunden
What with that title, you’d be forgiven for thinking this family movie was a ropey Mary Poppins cash-in. Fortunately, it is entirely misleading as regards the pervading presence of Mr Blunden himself. He’s integral, of course, but he doesn’t float around on an umbrella, perform magic tricks, or do anything really amazing. Indeed, it’s more amazing that his circumstance is rather tragic.
The Railway Children was a much-loved staple when I was wee, but somehow Lionel Jeffries’ follow-up entirely passed me by (despite, by Wikipedia accounts, having a firm place in the nation’s hearts). I was also familiar with the lesser creature that is The Water Babies, Jeffries’ final of five films as a director, all of them family or youth orientated. As an actor, Jeffries has been an enduring favourite, often cast as an exasperated policeman or sergeant outwitted by Peter Sellers or another ascendant comedian. One of his best spotlights is as Sergeant Major Sydney MacGregor in that rarest of things, a good Michael Winner movie (You Must Be Joking!)
As a director he shows surprising consistency and diligence. His films may be aimed at younger audience, but the tone is neither patronising nor simplistic. Adults behave like adults, they’re just not giving full voice to their predilections in front of minors (there’s an undercurrent of sex and sadism within the Victorian household, so it’s probably a fair representation of the truth of the period). Jeffries may be depicting Victoriana or Georgiana but he isn’t gripped by pure chocolate box nostalgia. Rather there’s a Dickensian recognition of the grime and grimness amidst the child’s eye of hope. And still, there’s an affirmative sense of the English landscape embedded in his vision, its peace and its beauty (even when the majority of the proceedings are confined to a country house). He’s also a gentle satirist, as his depiction of church services (administered by Paul Eddington) are filled less with a devoted flock than luckless habitués.
And the world of the beyond is a mysterious, unfathomable place; whatever rules Mr. Blunden operates by are curious to say the least. There appears to be no direct equation with a Christian influence (although the backdrop of church and its graveyards is lingering). Nor is there the pagan underbelly of The Box of Delights. This is more nebulous, almost as if the laws of the universe take shape in aid of whatever the individual needs to fulfil their destiny.
Jeffries adapted Antonia Barber’s novel The Ghosts, which was first published three years earlier. It’s easy to see why the title wasn’t used. Not only is it rather non-descript, it’s also misleading (since the children are not, strictly speaking, ghosts). Beginning in 1918, the titular solicitor (Laurence Naismith) offers a widow (Dorothy Alison) and her children, Lucy (Lynne Frederick) and Jamie (Garry Miller) the position of caretakers of a rundown country mansion. There, Lucy and Jamie encounter two children from 1818, Sara (Rosalyn Landor) and Georgie (Marc Granger), who have travelled through time to enlist their help. Sara and Georgie have been orphaned, and are convinced that their Uncle’s in-laws are trying to kill them for Georgie’s inheritance. Mr. Blunden, the original you might say, is the family solicitor in this time but he pays no heed to the children’s pleas. Lucy and Jamie travel back to 1818 to help them.
Really then, The Amazing Mr. Blunden is metaphysical time-travel tale masquerading as a ghost story. The finer points of how Blunden is enabled to correct his mistakes are not dwelt upon, nor are the logistics of his corporeality. We learn that part of him is “undead”. And he says, “I have suffered for 100 years, tormented by my own conscience”. His 1818 self is ignorant and aloof (“a shallow, insensitive man”) to the plight of Sara and Georgie, but his “spirit” form is able to assume corporeal form at will. He is also able to re-merge with his 1818 original, although this seems to have no enlightening effect on his disposition. Or does it? Later, he is able to absorb the pain of the fire that Jamie would have experienced; presumably spirit Blunden bides his time within and galvanises his original self when the time comes. His abilities also include leading Sara and Georgie to a book containing A Charm to Move the Wheel of Time; the ingredients for a potion both sets of children use to traverse the century (“To make the mind still, to escape from time. Not to another place, but another time”). As with Alice in Wonderland, the adventure really begins when the kinder ingesting reality-altering substances; in this case, they trip out and arrive in the distant past.
Perhaps surprisingly, when Blunden perishes in the fire that is not the end of him. One might have expected that, his work finished and amends made, he would pass on permanently to the spirit world. Instead he appears back in 1918 and, to the question of which Blunden he is, responds, “We three kings of orient are, my dear”. Jeffries seems to be playing with Holy Trinity references, but it’s unclear quite how they are supposed to relate to Blunden. There are only two of him, unless the version at the end is the third? The vicar refers to the Trinity (Lucy and Jamie exchange a look when he mentions the Holy Ghost), and the three-kings reference may have been added as a makeshift to forestall any suggestions of blasphemy. Has Blunden been titled with some sort of divine status? (Not having read the book, I couldn’t say if any of these points are clarified within, although it seems that there Blunden remains dead following the fire).
The plot unspools if inspected too closely. Others have noted the movie’s apparent incorporation of a version of The Grandfather Paradox. Elements of the scenario are strikingly similar to Back to the Future. The changing of fates is represented by the transposing of elements; Blunden’s replaces the children’s gravestone, just as in BTTF Marty’s photo alters as the timeline is affected. But if Marty is attempting to ensure that he is born, the revelation that Sara was in fact the children’s great-great grandmother creates confusion. Who was the great-great grandmother of Lucy and Jamie in the original timeline, where Sara and Georgie die in the fire? It suggests a paradox (as per The Terminator), as Lucy and Jamie at the beginning could not be the descendants of someone who expired as a child. It appears that a solution exists, at least in the book. When Jamie returns to the present but fallen into a coma, he visits an unearthly realm. There he is informed that he and Lucy’s past was changed as a reward for saving the children, and so they became the descendants of Sarah and thus inherited the estate.
Naismith is appropriately beamish as the spirit Blunden and cold-hearted as the 1818 version. The child actors are of varying skill, but all competent. Lynne Frederick (who had turned eighteen when the film was released) died tragically early at 39 from alcoholism. Famously (or infamously, given the bad press she received and the hard-to-lose label of gold-digger) she became Peter Sellers’ fourth wife. He was in the process of divorcing her when he died, so she inherited his entire estate (she married David Frost six months after Sellers’ death). The same year as Mr. Blunden, Frederick played the lead in the much less innocent Vampire Circus. She gave up acting completely at the end of the decade (her last role was the dire Sellers version of The Prisoner of Zenda). She’s every bit as good as Jeffries’ previous rising star find, Jenny Agutter, although Lucy does unfortunately become a bit of “useless girl” during the climax; it’s boys who need to do all the heroic stuff, you know.
Gary Miller is less sure of himself, but has enthusiasm on his side. Both Landor and young Granger (his only film role) are fine. I suppose the only general criticism one might direct is that they’re all terribly, terribly well spoken. Just like The Railway Children; that’s English Heritage filmmaking for you. The only exception is Thomas (Stuart Lock), but he’s a common servant boy (there’s an implicit criticism of class divides; although the film makes no bones about the way society frowns upon the intermingling of the stratum, both Uncle Bertie and Sarah marry outside their class, and to dreadful lower-class types!)
Jeffries fills the supporting roles with an array of eccentrics. James Villiers is mercenary fool Uncle Bertie, selling off the family silver to finance his wastrel lifestyle. His wife Bella, a music hall performer with the mind of a child, is played by Madeline Smith. Smith was no stranger to lusty parts. She appeared in Hammer Horrors including The Vampire Lovers, played Erotica in the big screen Up Pompeii and was bedded by James Bond in Live and Let Die. The child’s mind is used to explain why Bella can see the “ghosts” of the children when none of the other adults can, explained little further than adults being “Too old, too insensitive”. The openness of children to the supernatural is a common theme, as emphasised by the line “As children grow older, they lose the power to believe”. Imagination is the first thing to go, of course. Villiers and Smith garishly encapsulate Bertie, cooing “My little sausage”, and Bella, with her peanut brain and vacant voice. One might suggest the antagonists are a little too broad, too cartoonish; at times this it feels a bit like they’re stepped out of Carry on Dickens.
However distasteful Bertie and Bella may be, Mrs Wickens (Diana Dors) and Mr. Wickens (David Lodge) are outright grotesques. Dors plays up the pantomime villainy, befitting a character attempting all manner of methods for offing the children. She’s also given to a range of abusive language that pushes the boundaries of family viewing, mostly directed at Sara (“You skinny slut!”; “Where are you, you hussy?”). Mr. Wickens, a brain-damaged ex-boxer, is a nightmarish brute; something you’d find moaning and drooling in a Hammer dungeon. Also appearing is the great Graham Crowden as Mr. Clutterbuck (a partner of Blunden’s law firm).
Elmer Bernstein’s score by is a tad intrusive at times, but the technical side is accomplished. The redressing of the dilapidated/thriving mansion is effective, and cinematographer Gerry Fisher’s images are evocative, from wintry London to the ghoulish Victorian kitchen. Fisher worked on a wide variety of movies, including The Offence, Wolfen, Highlander and The Exorcist III.
Lionel Jeffries’ film may not hold the classic status of The Railway Children, but it cements his reputation as a filmmaker. He shows his dexterity as a writer through pulling off some rather awkward structural transitions (no sooner have the children met their nineteenth-century relatives than a lengthy flashback sequence begins). As a director, he knew the best way to make family movies was to treat the audience with respect (he fared less well in that regard with his last two pictures). The Amazing Mr. Blunden may occasionally feel slightly nebulous, but that might be a good thing when so much demands over explanation. This is an imaginative, well-crafted tale. As the credits roll, there is a cast curtain call as the performers say their farewells. It’s a decision that seems to ignite the ire of some who otherwise love the picture. I found it quite jolly, if only for Crowden’s enthusiastic “Oh, goodbye!”