Downton Abbey movie review: Leave your principles outside for yet another warm hug of aristocracy and English manners
Director: Michael Engler
Cast: Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, Maggie Smith
Sitting in her pristine bedroom, dressed in the finest silk and the shiniest jewels, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) asks her maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) if the days of aristocracy and having nice things without moving a muscle for it, are over. Should she leave her big castle to live a simpler life, down somewhere in a menial cottage sprawling across just a couple of acres? In that moment, you and Anna agree on what the right answer should be: No! Anna says it because she thoroughly believes her masters deserve the best things and she deserves to serve them for the rest of her life. You say it because you just want another season of Downton Abbey.
Who needs to take some time out for self-reflection? Both.
Watch the Downton Abbey trailer here
And that’s the brilliant trick of Downton Abbey, the show and the movie. For six years, you overlooked everything else that history books taught you about the unfairness of the class divide to believe in a fairytale that was just too cosy to give up. In an Amazon Prime full of true crime series, this was the one corner where all was good and sweet and the worst thing that could befall a character was some missing silver spoons from the main dining hall.
The show knew how to mix just the right emotions, have its characters say just the right things and drown out the inherent subservience of the downstairs population in the clatter of dinner trays and beaded dresses. The cover-up was much harder to spot when it spanned across multiple episodes of a season but with the movie, it all comes bubbling out on more occasions than one.
The show has taken a giant leap to the big screen and a bigger budget with Downton Abbey, the movie. However, the stakes are even lower than before and this time, much ado has indeed been made about nothing. And that’s really saying something about a show that carved out an entire season out of a dead man in a lady’s room.
The movie wastes no time in exchanging greetings with beloved characters you’ve missed for four years. The Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) doesn’t get to slo-mo walk into the frame, the music doesn’t swell when Lady Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern) smiles over her shoulder. The film has an entire season’s worth of troubles and misunderstandings to resolve in under two hours and therefore, not a single moment to spare. The entire runtime feels like downstairs’ busy kitchen with several pots boiling on several fires. Director Michael Engler establishes in the first few minutes itself that this isn’t a film for those new to the show and I would suggest the same. Personally, I would even recommend brushing up on the Crawley family tree and refreshing your final season memories before you waltz into the theatre.
What’s so important about this day in the lives of Downton Abbey residents that warranted a movie? A few million pounds in box office ticket sales and a sudden visit from the King of England himself. The earl gets a surprise telegram announcing an overnight visit from King George V and Queen Mary. Apparently, it’s a thing that happened all the time.
Anyway, in true happy servant fashion, the downstairs population is bustling with joy at the prospect of serving wine and washing saucers for the king rather than the earl for a change. Someone calls it the ‘highlight of my career, no, my life’ as another shivers with nervous glee on merely being in the presence of his king. For more representation (not really fairly enough although), there are a few who aren’t all about that monarchial life but their voices are sniffled in the noise of a boiler that has just exploded in the basement.
The king arrives and so does his not-so-merry band of butlers and chefs, who are drunk on the power that comes from being the King’s servants rather than that of a mere earl. The Downton staff is told to take a hike while the royal servants takes over their duties for the king’s stay. Rather than enjoying a paid weekend off, the Downton staff protests, adamant on serving the king, despite warnings from Carson (Jim Carter) about tomfoolery and treason.
Kitchen chaos aside, there are other insignificant problems raising their heads. The chauffeur son-in-law’s loyalties are still being questioned, the previously spinster daughter’s husband has to leave for work while she is pregnant, a cousin won’t give the dowager countess (Maggie Smith) all her money, Daisy’s fiancé is a jealous idiot, a princess is in an unhappy marriage, there is again a silver-stealing thief on the loose, and Lady Mary still has doubts about the future of staying rich without working a day for it. Apart from the tiny nuisances, there is also an assassination attempt on the king which was resolved way too quickly to even be considered worth anything. Also, the previously horrible butler is still living in the closet and the film, almost, appears to say that maybe it’s better to stay in the closet? Can’t be the most ideal ending to his story when everyone else gets their ‘walk in the sunset’ climaxes.
Watching Downton Abbey movie feels like you jumped straight ahead to the next episode when you finished the series finale four years ago. Sure, it is shorter and way too tight to let you breathe and perhaps more vocal and hence more problematic in its love for the aristocracy, but this is most likely something you already knew when you walked in. It is still full of nice people who smile at other nice people, respect a servant for his principles rather than fire him for his pluck, say thanks to a friend, offer help in time of need, band together and show courage in the face of bullies. They curtsy to the king, pour wine out of waxed glass bottles, wear crisp white gloves, shine silverware, mow their green gardens, wind the clocks and walk you in and out of their homes. What is not to love about this fairytale? But that’s what it is, a fairytale.
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