Movie Review: Downton Abbey
By Matthew Huntley
October 18, 2019
“The king and queen are coming to Downton!” This glorious yet nerve-racking news sends quite the dramatic tidal wave rippling through the halls of Downton Abbey, the towering, light-stoned Yorkshire estate overlooking a quaint village in Northern England, home to the aristocratic Crawley Family and their band of loyal servants. For the family and staff alike, a Royal visit means showing off their beloved Downton and solidifying it as the beating heart of the community, not to mention impressing the king and queen with its stateliness and their personal devotions to the crown.
A plot summary such as this may seem hokey and antiquated, but for faithful followers of the “Downton Abbey” saga, it will sound just like another episode of the popular television series, which ran on PBS from 2010 to 2016. In fact, the mainstay of the show, like many British dramas, was its unwillingness to deride or satirize itself. It simply viewed the lavish lifestyles and melodramatic behavior of its characters as normal and expected within the context of their social status, and while we didn’t always respect what the Crawleys or their servants did or said, we at least understood their motivations and identified with them, no matter how far removed their lives seemed from our own. And for this latter reason, the show didn’t necessarily play as fantasy or as an over-the-top soap opera, but instead felt grounded. Plus, it was fun, addictive and juicy, and this first cinematic incarnation retains the series’ one-of-a-kind charm and soothing appeal.
But will “Downton Abbey” the film prove just as entertaining and delightful for those not familiar with the show? Probably not, because the film doesn’t really provide a formal introduction to the “Downton” world or its many people, and it really should have, especially given its general title. I had the advantage of knowing the characters, their relationships, their histories and the era beforehand, and even though it’s not terribly difficult to catch up with everything after the first few scenes, the screenplay by series creator Julian Fellowes, along with director Michael Engler (who helmed several episodes), should have made more of effort to tell the beginning of the film’s story with a novice “Downton” viewer in mind, if only to provide him or her an opportunity to slowly segue into the events of this time and place instead of being thrust into what feels like the middle of it.
Another issue is, as a film, “Downton Abbey” doesn’t feel especially cinematic. It plays more like an extended episode of the series, and I think if its makers had approached the material—both visually and narratively—from a more filmic standpoint, particularly with how they introduce the setting and main players, the presentation as a whole would have rendered more relevant and important for all viewers, since the cinema inherently makes drama feel grander and larger-than-life, as opposed to television, which can be niche and understated by comparison. But expanding their audience doesn’t seem to have been the filmmakers’ objective, as it’s evident “Downton Abbey” has been made mostly for pre-existing fans of the show, which is a small shame, since it does feel slightly exclusionary.
That being said, “Downton Abbey” is still dramatic, amusing and emotional, and whether or not you know the people or their circumstances going in, it doesn’t take long for this world of privilege and fictitious British history to involve you and keep you entertained for two hours.
As I mentioned, the central narrative centers around King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary’s (Geraldine James) visit to the abbey circa 1927 (about a year has passed in the series time) and the subsequent excitement it stirs up. But just like the show, there are enough parallel sub-plots to ensure the various members of the Crawley Family and the long list of Downton butlers, maids, valets, cooks, etc. get a healthy dose of screen time.
It probably comes as no surprise that one of the more dominant storylines involves Violet Crawley, played by the unsinkable and face-of-the-show Maggie Smith. Smith’s “sparky” Granny, as she is known, is mother to Robert, a.k.a. Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), head of Downton Abbey, and she’s miffed because the queen’s lady-in-waiting is a familial rival, Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), who has so far refused to recognize Robert as her closest living relative and therefore has not necessarily selected him to receive her vast inheritance. Fellowes’ script is once again peppered with memorable Granny zingers and punchy retorts, which she usually delivers after her trusted family friend and voice of reason, Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton), tries to talk sense into her.
Another plot forms when Tom (Allen Leech), the devout Irishman and widower of one of the Crawley daughters, is approached by the mysterious Major Chetwode (Stephen Campbell Moore), who suspiciously seeks out information about the upcoming Royal visit. Meanwhile, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), eldest daughter of Robert and his American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), has her own suspicions about Tom’s loyalty and wrestles with maintaining the family businesses associated with the estate. And Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), Mary’s younger sister, upon learning her husband (Harry Hadden-Paton) has been chosen by the king to accompany the prince to Africa, struggles to keep her own career and family in order. Mary and Edith’s problems are essentially par for the course as far as “Downton” conflicts go.
Also par for the course are the dedicated servants attempting to show their roles matter whilst upholding the integrity of the Downton name, especially amidst the monarchy sending its own house and kitchen staff to the abbey to make sure everything is just right for his and her majesty’s stay. The rude and terse Royal servants tell their Downton counterparts to step aside, but naturally, the stalwart Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), as head of the butlers and maids, won’t tolerate either them or their staff being replaced. Thus, the Downton regulars plan a covert scheme to undermine their new Royal colleagues.
A lot more happens in the film of course (too much to summarize here), and one of the pleasures of the show and now of the film is its ability to lend weight to everything that transpires. Sure, some of characters and developments get more screen time than others, and some feel added on just to give everybody something to do and say, but in spite of this, nothing feels shortchanged or forced. Engler and editor Mark Day given the narrative a steady rhythm and flow so we’re always engaged but never over or underwhelmed, and cinematographer Ben Smithard captures the vibrancy of the interior and exterior sets in a smooth, seamless manner so the multiple plot threads have room to twist, turn, cross and overlap one another without crashing or going unresolved.
Speaking of never going unresolved, anybody familiar with “Downton Abbey,” or with Hollywood movies in general, will probably guess everyone and everything eventually settles down into a nice, cushy, happy ending, not unlike a fairy tale. But this was the spirit and purpose of the show: to be a safe, predictable, innocuous drama that specializes in making us feel calm. It’s what makes “Downton” “Downton,” and it’s unique in that way.
Do I hope for a “Downton Abbey 2”? The ending of this film certainly makes a sequel possible. But yes, I’d say because this one is so funny, charming and comforting, at least one more reunion with the Crawleys and their staff is in order, perhaps to serve as a final send-off and bring the saga to an official close. My only request would be that such a conclusion feels more like a final film rather than a final episode.