It's really good, within its limitations. It's a British children's film that's pulling together elements of time travel, ghost stories and two different historical eras, either of which could be mis-described as Dickensian. Don't go in expecting it to be something it's not, but I found it to be unusual and even oddly moving.
We might as well get those limitations out of the way first. The protagonists are children, although surprisingly their acting is surprisingly solid. Lynne Frederick has a dodgy reaction shot early on, but despite this comes out pretty well and might even be said to be actually good. I like that thing she does when first time-travelling, for instance, not to mention her hysteria towards the end when worried about her brother. No, the children are good. They're doing their job and they're not the problem here. It's the dialogue. The girls seem fairly normal, but the boys talk like retired colonels and seem to think themselves in charge of their older sisters. That's even true of the five-year-old. You'd have been wanting to slap them if they'd been delivering that dialogue naturalistically. However this is where we get to the best thing about their collective performance, which is the way in which they've immersed themselves in their historical personas. They don't come across as being modern at all, but instead are polite and well-spoken boys and girls, from a time when children were supposed to know their place. Line delivery and characterisation! Wow. Getting that wrong could have wrecked the film, by the way.
Occasionally they're even good enough to be funny. When a boy does or says something inappropriate, that's much more amusing that it would have been if he hadn't otherwise been being so prim and proper. I laughed at their poison-testing, while I'm still trying to decide whether or not another one said "your mother is a damned old witch".
Nevertheless this is still a story where heroic children have to defeat wicked grown-ups. There's nothing wrong with that, but it does make the film seem mannered and there's one scene in particular that gets a bit too Children's Film Foundation. Lynne Frederick and her brother Garry Miller are using invisibility superpowers on an evil Diana Dors, which should have been the film's most entertaining scene but instead gives the impression that the production team were slumming it. You can almost hear them saying "the kiddies will love this". Is the music trying too hard? I don't know. It's not unlike the feeling one gets from female nudity that's obviously been shot by a gay male director, in which on some fundamental level, someone's just not getting it. If those kids had been Spider-Man
and this had really been a superhero movie, you'd have never shot Diana Dors's scene that way.
However at the end of the day, all that's just genre. It's a 1972 British children's film. It is what it is. Only a lunatic would criticise it for not resembling Rosemary's Baby.
Firstly, I like the story. It's based on a book and it's doing some fairly counter-intuitive stuff with time travel, people getting split and so on. It's presented clearly enough that you'll never find yourself confused, but even so at times it's weird and a little spooky even by adult movie standards, let alone children's fare. There's death and attempted murder. I liked all that. Then even though you couldn't possibly call this a horror film, the writer-director Lionel Jeffries isn't afraid to wiggle an occasional finger in that direction. You could do a full-blown ghost story in Langley Park as we first see it, while you've got to love the gratuitous graveyard shot of a skull on a headstone.
Then you've got Mr Blunden himself. There's a lot to be said for the whole cast, but the standout is Laurence Naismith's Mr Blunden. There's a surprising amount of moral complexity in the story role he's been given, while Naismith is so kind and honourable that more than once he'd get me almost wanting to cry just by walking on-screen. Even without him this would still be a good film, but I think there's something slightly broken with anyone who watches this film and doesn't fall a little bit in love with Naismith.
The cast is one of those solid second-tier line-ups you might recognise from their old episodes of Doctor Who or Sherlock Holmes, or else their bit part in a Bond film. Look up their CVs and you'll see the long and respectable careers of stalwarts of the British acting profession. I recognised quite a few of them. There's Graham Crowden, Madeline Smith and even Paul Eddington in a tiny role as a vicar. Smith shows plenty of cleavage, but it still took me a while to recognise her under that insane blonde wig. Diana Dors would have presumably been the biggest of these names at the time, but how many people would even recognise her? She impressed me, though. We're talking about a 1950s megastar, known as the English Marilyn Monroe, and yet here she's energetically throwing herself into a role for which she has to be repulsive. My word, she's foul. She's grotesque enough to be Dickensian, in fact, either bullying or wheedling as necessary while she plots the deaths of children. Note the way she's doing Sam Weller's accent from The Pickwick Papers, by the way. You'd have never caught Bardot playing a role like this.
I wasn't wild about Deddie Davies as Meakin, Mrs. Wickens's servant, though. She's playing it as broad enough to be a Dickens character, but she's not a good enough actress to get away with it.
I like the historical side of things. It's set in two eras, of which the earlier is in April 1818 and the other exactly one hundred years later. It looks obvious when you write it out like that, but like an idiot, I never realised that the children's late father must have died in World War One. There's not the slightest hint of war in the film's realisation of its 1918 setting. Instead it just looks like a Sherlock Holmes film, with carts, cobbled streets and some truly Dickensian hats. In hindsight this seems a bit odd, given the fact that the Armistice wasn't signed until November, but I suppose that was all on the Continent and wouldn't have had much to do with the everyday lives of a widow and her children. It looks lovely, anyway.
Then when we go back in time, we're suddenly back in Jane Austen country. She'd died the year before, but in 1818 both Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously. Admittedly I can't see Austen doing the kind of Dickensian vulgarity that the film's occasionally going for, but historically speaking this is like a grab-bag of all the most famous Victorian cinematic influences.
This was Laurence Naismith's last film, by the way. For the most part it's merely quite nice, but when he's around it's on another level. It's also more full-blooded than a lot of children's films, with Dickensian neglect and cruelty to go with one or two startling lines of dialogue. Madeline Smith sings a song to explain that it "takes a naughty girl to make a naughty boy", for instance. I'm not entirely sure what she means there, but I'd be first in line for it. Incidentally the writer-director Jeffries was a very successful actor, well known for his comic films, but he directed five films of which the most famous is The Railway Children (1970). If that's a better film than this one, I'd better put it on my list.