2019 | rated PG | starring Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Allen Leech, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Joanne Froggatt, Sophie McShera, Lesley Nicol, Kevin Doyle, Robert James-Collier, Imelda Staunton, Phyllis Logan & Maggie Smith | directed by Michael Engler | 2 hrs 2 mins |
In 2015, after 6 seasons, Jullian Fellow’s upstairs/downstairs drama of manners set in 1920s aristocratic England Downton Abbey came to a smart, satisfying ending. I get it. In the same way that Sex and the City from the outside looks like a male-bashing comedy of cringing sex puns, Downton Abbey looks like a dull, merchant ivory costume drama for the PBS crowd. Neither are what they appear to be with Downton under Fellows’ pen a well-written, high spirited, tonally light piece of utterly charming low-stakes escapism. Like Sex and the City it came to a perfectly fine ending, but unlike Sex, it’s gamble in the movie world has paid off, extending the fun of the series instead of squashing it. If you liked Downton on the small screen, you’ll probably eat it up on the big screen as well, where the immaculate period details of the estate and costume are a feast for the eye.
A few years have passed since we last saw Lord and Lady Grantham (Hugh Bonneville & Elizabeth McGovern), caretaker of the Abbey Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), Edith (Laura Carmichael)’s marriage and the retirement of Head Footman Carson (Jim Carter), ceding the post to Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier). The movie opens beautifully, with a letter from the Royal court moving across the country from carrier to train to car and ending in a sweeping, goosebump-inducing shot to reveal Downton itself as the music swells and the title appears. King George and Queen Mary will be stopping in for a visit sending both the upstairs and downstairs residents of Downton into a tizzy to pull together the perfect royal show.
Written by Fellows and directed by both Sex and Abbey series director Michael Engler, the framework of Downton is a procedural of royal protocol where the fictional characters of the series and historical figures come together. As wound up as the upstairs class gets over a perceived mis-step in their image, the downstairs crew is royally put out by the full-scale army of waiters, butlers, footmen and a French cook that move in and take over the place, forcing the servants to be servants for the royal servants. Inside this framework is a season’s worth of little storylines for about 20 of the characters, from Anna Bates’ plot to reclaim the kitchen, to Mary tracking missing silver in the house to the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith, whose one-liners don’t cut to the quick quite as well as they did in the series) fearing an estranged cousin (Imelda Staunton, Harry Potter scene-stealer) will give away the family inheritance. And the boiler is broken.
A surprising amount of the film’s storylines run through Tom Branson (Allen Leech), once a Crawley family outsider whose Irish loyalty arouses the attention of British security and who also runs through the inheritance storyline and a look at Princess Mary’s true-life marital troubles. That all of this business doesn’t collide into a mess is where the movie’s biggest achievement lies. Engler makes it look effortless. With few cuts, cameras glide through the rooms capturing bits of conversation that move everyone’s arcs forward. Fellows, keeping all the plates spinning and putting a satisfying and sometimes surprising bow on each and every one of them. The third act does start to drag. Once the movie climaxes at downstairs hijinks, it shifts upstairs to tie up all the relationship lose ends at a pace that isn’t as snappy as the early scenes that follow hurried characters down hallways making preperations.
When you pull Downton Abbey out of it’s PBS niche and drop it into the movie world it has a different sheen on it. It starts to resemble the large-cast juggling works of Robert Altman (not to mention Altman and Fellows’ Abbey precursor Gosford Park which this movie has a lot in common with. A lot.). It comes up against the most stuffy, disingenuous Hollywood costume dramas rushed out in the last quarter of the year for studio Oscar bait. But Downton Abbey is a lot more fun than those. It’s beautiful, spry on it’s feet, concerned about characters and makes no bones about it’s Jane Austin English escapist fetishes. It loves this history and that love is infectious.
Downton Abbey is also likely to be a rarily at this year’s US box office. A look at the rich and those that work under them that doesn’t turn into a class-warfare satire. Quite the opposite, this is the only movie we may see in a while where the downstairs servants fight for their opportunity to serve. As in the series, the Crawley’s aren’t the aloof wealthy and the cooks, butlers and footmen live for their jobs, love the British monarch (except for ever-outlier Daisy) and treat their time buffing silver, winding clocks and serving meals like artists working their craft. It’s as deeply satisfying to watch as any crime series solving a murder mystery. This movie is a complete delight and the world of Downton Abbey shines brightly against a cynical, calculating year at the movies.