DOWNTON ABBEY. Country, UK. Director Michael Engler. Screenwriter: Julian Fellowes. Based on the PBS series of the same name and characters created by Julian Fellowes. Cast: Michelle Dockery, Matthew Goode, Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, Tuppence Middleton, Elizabeth McGovern, Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Allen Leech, Imelda Staunton, Harry Haden-Paton, Raquel Cassidy, Robert James-Collier, Phyllis Logan, Sophie McShera, Joanne Froggatt, Jim Carter, Kevin Doyle, Michael Fox, Lesley Nicol, Brendan Coyle, Geraldine James, Kate Phillips, Max Brown, Susan Lynch, Simon Jones, David Haig, Philippe Spall, Douglas Reith, Perry Fitzpatrick. Language: English. Release Date: September 20, 2019. Runtime: 120 minutes.
Mostly Indies rating: A+
It had to happen. Even though it ended four years ago amidst much drama and fanfare and lots of Kleenex, the series we know and came to love, Downton Abbey, came to an end, and left us Anglophiles with not much to hold on to. While Masterpiece Theatre consistently has brought to life countless shows, some with their own spin-offs, none it seems has resonated with so much verve as Downton, an exploration of (what else?) upstairs and downstairs life at the turn of last century, something that R. F. Delderfield could write in his sleep.
This time, director Michael Engler pulls out all the stops. Even when every episode had the characteristic of a one-hour movie and often was treated with much care and cinematic attention to detail, when we see the movie that is Downton Abbey, we are in for quite the experience. A letter, a very important letter, is on its way to Downton, and its travel is treated with enormous suspense, with the music by John Lunn waxing and waning so beautifully you can’t but help but hold your breath, Once it is clear where it’s headed, cameras floating over the hills reveal the majestic castle, and thus begins the wistful, melancholic, rich theme we have come to know and love. The camera continues to move and pan and zoom in and out, giving us snippets of life at Downton, with Andy (Michael Fox) receiving the letter, Daisy and Mrs Patmore (Sophie McShera and Lesley Nicol) going about in the kitchen, in and about the many, many rooms, where we see Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery) discussing business (as it’s clear she’s the one who runs the house). It is a remarkable way to introduce practically everyone who lives and works in Downton, and if you are new to the story, it probably doesn’t require you to have seen the series, as Fellowes has left his people intact, with some slight changes. Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) now runs the house as butler alongside Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and is actually a nice guy. Retired butler Mr Carson (Jim Carter) tends to his garden. Other than that, it is business as usual: the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) and Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton) continue to exchange barbs (although, let’s be real, those two love each other in the same way Lady Mary and Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), for once, happily married, don’t. Tom Branson (Allen Leech), who had attempted life in the US, is back. Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode)? Absent, mostly. The Bates’ (Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt)? Check. Lady in waiting Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy? Check.
Missing, but mentioned? Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James) and Lady Rosamund Painswick (Samantha Bond), and that’s okay, We have new people to introduce, and that letter I mentioned is precisely why Downton begins that way. It turns out that the letter is coming from none other than Buckingham Palace itself. The King (Simon Jones) and Queen (Geraldine James) are coming to visit, since they are performing a tour around the country’s royal residences as a move to espouse the importance of the monarchy. Man the harpoons! Everything has to be picture perfect down to a science. Not having it is Daisy, who voices her more modern opinion that this is all a colossal waste of time, and of course, we side by her, but of course, we don’t really care, because let’s face it, Downton.
Also not quite having it but willing to suffer is Violet. The Queen’s lady-in-waiting, Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) is also Robert’s cousin once-removed and there has been a falling out over an inheritance that has left the families all estranged.
Interestingly, the real drama starts once the King and Queen’s staff arrive. Richard Ellis (David Haig), the Page of the Backstairs, behaves in a manner that is so offensive he reduces Barrow into absolute timidity. Lady Mary has no other choice but to bring the reliable Carson back, but even that has no effect on the Royal Staff who continue to act as if they own the house and none of the Downton staff even exist. This puts a monkey wrench in the plans of almost everyone involved: Mrs Patmore sees her cooking will not be put to service, Mrs Hughes finds herself relegated to the background, and basically everyone is forced into a corner. In the meantime, Anna Bates who really needs her own show where she plays a Miss Marple character, has put her sleuthing to good use, this time with a Royal Staff employee with a penchant for legerdemain.
Midway up the stairs, Tom Branson has been approached by a stranger with ulterior motives, and Branson finds himself somewhat out of place with the sheer spectacle of it all while he also serves as a counselor to Princess Mary (Kate Phillips) who finds herself trapped in a marriage to an abusive man and he also finds possible love with Maud Bagshaw’s maid Lucy (Tuppence Middleton). Busy man.
Interestingly of all is Barrow’s own storyline. Barrow is the only downstairs character who other than being basically a bitter bitch through the entire show never quite had a storyline that would be satisfactory. He makes friends with one of the King’s footmen (Max Brown). It’s only too bad that Fellowes doesn’t take the opportunity to make this meeting a bit more pregnant with some foreboding of times changing the same way he is so verbal with Daisy’s snarling against the attention to pageantry. But, perhaps had this been a three-part miniseries or an official sixth season, that would have been a bit more fleshed out.
There is not a thing I can really say against the movie version of Downton Abbey (other than some plots move at cannonball speed and everything gets touched with such a light tone as to leave the viewer as though he saw it all through an impressionistic fog, but caught only the most salient of the best of the menu. Yes, there is a ridiculous amount of attention to period pieces, detail, gowns, lighting, because again, this isn’t your average 40 inch screen. The writing is often on point and of course, the best and bitchy lines go, hands down, to Maggie Smith, Probably a minor quibble is the way Elizabeth McGovern and Hugh Bonneville seem to have reduced their characters down to befuddled spectators on the side just enjoying a life of pure privilege, but that is just a side observation. Judging from box office receipts, it looks like America really, really loves royalty, castles, and intricate family plots involving heirs toe and whatnot that only serve to remind that this is a life that once was privy to a handful. Do not be surprised if we in 2021 or 2022 see a further iteration of Downton.