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‘Downton Abbey’ Review: Dir. Michael Engler (2019)

Downton Abbey is one of British television’s crown jewels. It delights at home and abroad with its recreation of aristocratic life, and the lives of the servants making it all run smoothly. Having never seen an episode I couldn’t possibly attest to the true brilliance of the show. Then again, after this cinematic endeavour, it’s doubtful I will be binge-watching a box set any time soon. That’s not to say I completely hated the film, but it is certainly – judging by the laughs, sympathetic sighs, and gasps of the audience – one for the many, many fans. In actual fact, it brought back memories of a cosy Sunday evening in front of the telly, with nothing particularly intense, confrontational, or noteworthy taking place.

Based on a TV series, which makes the mistake of trying to include all characters equally, there isn’t really a single plot here, but the one that gels it all together involves the house, headed by Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), finding themselves in a tizz due to the impending arrival of the King (Simon Jones) and Queen (Geraldine James). With a parade, luncheon, and dinner to prepare, the house staff, lead by the butler Barrow (Robert James-Collier), are shoved aside to make way for the royal family’s own staff. It may sound like the plot for a sitcom, and at times plays out as one, but it’s also very hoity-toity po-faced nonsense. Add to this individual stories of a princess struggling with her marriage, Tom Branson’s (Allen Leech) Irishness leading to questions of loyalty to the crown, Barrow confronting his sexuality, Daisy (Sophie McShea) questioning her impending marriage, a family feud between Countess Crawley (Maggie Smith) and cousin Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), missing items around the house, and Heavens to Betsy a broken boiler.

That to me sounds like a season’s worth of material for a show, which would allow it to be fleshed out and explored in detail. Here, however, plotlines are completed unsatisfactorily in around 5-10 minutes. This is most frustrating, as there are numerous story beats that would be interesting, emotional, and relevant to today. A strained relationship between Ireland and the crown, homophobia, class struggles – all these themes are addressed but quickly buried with such flippancy it sometimes feels like a propaganda piece. The message seems to be “Shut up and carry on!” People are praised and have revelations that loyalty to family names, reputations, and King and country. Branson never really struggles with his allegiance, Barrow gets out of a tense and horrible situation through privilege, and the main story sees servants one-upping other servants for the honour of serving the wealthy and elite.

Related: Watch the first teaser for the Downton Abbey movie

Still, this may just be a very cynical view, and it might be this very unapologetic approach to such finery that has allowed it to find its audience. There is plenty of charm and wit, especially through Maggie Smith’s wonderfully cold quips, often used to take characters down a peg or two. The costumes, attention to detail, and soaring shots of idyllic British estates do create a wonderful fantasy world that is quite comforting to inhabit. Leech and James-Collier should also be praised on their performances and bringing some weight to an otherwise bland film. When political importance and human identity are brushed aside for whether or not the house will have hot water and polished silver in time for some houseguests, it’s clear this film wants to be a gentle hug in a world of increasing gut punches.

This is certainly a film for the fans (based on audience reactions), where no doubt knowing these characters, what they’ve been through, and their individual quirks will enhance the film no end. Those fresh to proceedings may get some enjoyment out of it, but why this couldn’t have been an extended Christmas special which one could enjoy in the comfort of their own home, is beyond me. Fans needn’t worry, but the uninitiated won’t be converted.

 Downton Abbey is now on general release.

Luke likes many things, films and penguins being among them. He's loved films since the age of 9, when STARGATE and BATMAN FOREVER changed the landscape of modern cinema as we know it. His love of film extends to all aspects of his life, with trips abroad being planned around film locations and only buying products featured in Will Smith movies. His favourite films include SEVEN SAMURAI, PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, IN BRUGES, LONE STAR, GODZILLA, and a thousand others.


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