Dir: Michael Engler. Starring: Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith, and Penelope Wilton. PG cert, 122 mins
Downton Abbey has circled back for one last hurrah, four years after its season finale. It’s essentially a victory lap. Yet while fans may be content merely to bask in the presence of their favourite aristocrats for a few more precious hours, you’d be hard-pressed to find any justification for why the ITV series felt compelled to transfer to the big screen – beyond the money, that is. The film is nothing more than an extended Christmas special with enough of a boost in the budget to afford a couple of extra helicopter shots. Take away the nostalgia it’s so viciously feeding on and the whole thing starts to look quite bare.
The film is set in 1927, two years after we last saw the Crawley family. The household has been set into a sudden flurry by the announcement that King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) are set to visit Downton as part of their Yorkshire tour. Mary (Michelle Dockery) has been left to shoulder much of the organisation, while her parents, Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), look on with giddy amusement. Thankfully, the house’s staff of domestic servants need little encouragement to get busy, since they’re even more overjoyed by the prospect. If there’s anyone with mixed feelings about the royal visit – let’s say their estate manager Tom Branson (Allen Leech), who happens to be an Irish republican – they’re doing an awfully good job of keeping it to themselves.
There’s an obvious irony to the fact that, when the servants finally do rise up in rebellion, it’s not against their own economic oppression but against the meddling royal lackeys who try to take over the house and stop them from serving their king and ultimate overlord. Downton Abbey is so suffocatingly in love with the royal family that it borders on monarchist propaganda. Which can be expected and isn’t entirely unwelcome, considering the entire series was just a dreamy love letter to the aristocracy. But the characters spend so much time ooh-ing and ahh-ing the royal family (all beautifully decked out in gold and jewels, thanks to costume designer Anna Robbins) that there’s barely time for any plot.
Much like the series, the film is busy with various subplots. Here, they exist to ensure that everyone gets their due screentime. But there are a lot of characters in Downton Abbey, which equals a lot of subplots and none of them are resolved in a way that feels dramatically satisfying. Matthew Goode’s Henry Talbot, prominently placed on the film’s poster, jogs in 10 minutes before the end and says about four lines of dialogue. That said, series creator Julian Fellowes, who here has sole credit on the script, clearly takes a lot of joy in writing fan-favourite Violet (Maggie Smith)’s various quips. When she’s accused of being Machiavellian in her schemes, she snaps back that she “is frequently underrated”. She’s a reliable highlight, particularly when she’s feuding with her cousin (Imelda Staunton), since the pair know how to light up even the dreariest of scenes. Staunton also provides some interesting texture to her role as a woman steadfastly, but calmly against old traditions.
Overall, it’s a rather uneventful affair, considering Downton Abbey is well-known for its forbidden romances, ghastly tragedies, and unearthed secrets. It’s far too concerned with doling out as many wish-fulfilment plotlines as possible, which, in the case of Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), the show’s only queer main character, feels like too little too late. There are a handful of sudden outbursts of conflict, but they’re quickly solved and easily forgotten. Even the romantic moments feel curiously abrupt. Where’s all the desperate longing? The suppressed desire? It seems odd, considering the reason Downton Abbey has such a hold on people is because there’s such a huge craving for glamorous, escapist melodrama.
There’s a clear desire to put forth a final, conclusive word on what Downton Abbey means to its inhabitants, and the film is filled with reflections on righteous duty and pride. Yet all it inevitably represents is a celebration of the ruling class and the system that props them up. There are no subtle concepts here. When it comes to the fraught history of Irish and English relations, the film pretty much rides a bull into a china shop and starts swinging a bat around. Mary, when confronted about it, just shrugs and wonders why any Irishman could possibly have anything to grumble about now that independence has been achieved.
Downton Abbey uses the immense privilege of its characters to seal itself in a bubble where it can dabble with the issues of the time without actually having to say anything of substance. Even the decline of the aristocracy, a shadow over much of the series, is only explicitly talked about once before never being mentioned again. In truth, Fellowes is yet to top his Oscar-winning screenplay for 2001’s Gosford Park, which also peeked behind the door of a stately home in strife. While its writing was sharp and venomous when it needed to be, Downton Abbey is so frightened that genuine introspection might spoil the fun that it feels about as weightless as the silk pillows the Crawleys lay their perfectly coiffed heads on each night.
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