DOWNTON ABBEY

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Michael Engler

Stars: Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, Imelda Staunton, Jim Carter, Tuppence Middleton, Matthew Goode, Laura Carmichael, Allen Leech, Joanna Froggatt, Robert James-Collier, Simon Jones, Geraldine Jones, Kevin Doyle, Phyllis Logan, Sophie McShera, Brendan Coyle, Mark Addy, Susan Lynch, Lesley Nicol, Micahel Fox, David Haig.

Jim Carter in Downton Abbey (2019)

This is a big screen treatment of the popular television series about the aristocratic Crawley family and their domestic servants in 1920s England. Creator Julian Fellowes, who also wrote the similarly themed Gosford Park for Robert Altman in 2001, has written the script here, and while Downton Abbey serves as a largely self-contained story it also attempts to wrap up a few narrative strands from the series, which ran from 2010-2015 and earned 69 Emmy Award nominations, a record for a non-US tv show.

The film is set in 1927, a few years after the series ended. We are once again introduced to the stately manor and courtly manners and graces of the titular sprawling estate, and the Crawley family who have presided over it for several generations. But Downton Abbey seems a bit of an anachronism in the years between the two world wars, and time is passing the aristocratic inhabitants by.

The main plot centres around the hurly burly and chaotic preparations caused by the impending Royal visit from King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James). Mary (Michelle Dockery) is now in charge of the estate and she persuades the recently retired head butler Carson (Jim Carter) to return to oversee the special occasion, which upsets Barrow (Robert James-Collier), who is now head butler. The servants and kitchen staff are all excited, until they are replaced unceremoniously by the King’s own personal staff. This incites a minor rebellion amongst the loyal staff.

Meanwhile there is an assassination attempt on the king, there are secrets and scandals within the Crawley family that threaten the future of the estate, and a tricky issue of inheritance. Themes explored include Republicanism versus the monarchy, homophobia, class differences, privilege, but they lack any real depth.

This is a busy film with lots of subplots and narrative strands woven throughout, more than enough to fill an entire series, which are neatly tied up in a rushed finale.

Most of the original ensemble cast have returned for the film and many stamp their authority on the familiar characters, while others are given more perfunctory treatment. The incomparable Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton exchange caustic barbs for much of the time, which adds another level of enjoyment, and they are a constant delight. Kevin Doyle provides plenty of comic relief as Mr Molesley. Tom Branson (Allen Leech) plays a key role in many of the events here as his Irish roots call into question his loyalty.

The film has been directed with style and attention to detail by Michael Engler, a veteran of television series who directed several episodes of Downton Abbey itself, and is undoubtedly very familiar with the material. He made his feature film debut with The Chaperone in 2018, and he gives this film a similar gentle touch, rhythm and pacing. Downtown Abbey is a lavishly mounted and sumptuous looking production, with richly detailed period costumes and lavish settings and ostentatious production design from Donal Woods, a veteran of the tv series, that lend authenticity to the material. The film has been shot with some warm cinematography from Ben Smithard (The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the forthcoming Blinded By The Light, etc), but it still feels like an extended television movie.

There is more than a touch of the 70s tv series Upstairs Downstairs to the material. Fans of the tv series will enjoy this much anticipated feature film version more than those who come to the film cold or without much knowledge of the series. Even if you are not really familiar with the series you can still enjoy Downton Abbey, although it may take a little longer to get your head around who the various characters are and where they fit in.

★★★

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