Film Review – Downton Abbey
It’s at this point where I must make a troubling confession: I’ve never seen an episode of the television show, Downton Abbey. I was well aware of it while it was on air and of its popularity. There were a few elements that I gathered from the periphery – about a wealthy family living on an exquisite country estate in early 20th century England. I understood the story focused on the numerous personal lives of the family and the servants that resided on the estate. But for whatever reason, the show passed by me.
Which makes watching and reviewing the film spinoff something of an experiment. I’m of the belief that any movie should be able to stand on its own without the need of outside sources to fill in gaps of missing information. I shouldn’t have to read the Harry Potter book series to appreciate what happens in the Harry Potter film series. A spinoff of a television show is a little bit different. Downton Abbey is not an adaptation but a continuation of an ongoing story, with the same actors playing the same parts, and the show-runner (Julian Fellowes) returning to write the script (with Michael Engler directing).
Watching it, I got a sense that there were bits and pieces that flew over my head – that certain relationships were already established and fortified from the show. Fans will have an upper hand getting reacquainted with this world where newcomers may need time to catch up. Luckily, Engler and Fellowes provide just enough backstory to welcome viewers old or new, while setting up a scenario that exists all on its own.
That scenario features King George V (Simon Jones) making it his intention to bring the royal family to Downton Abbey while on a tour. Thus, everyone in the home – including the patriarch Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), his daughters Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), son in law Tom Branson (Allen Leech), head butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier), and all the rest – must make a mad scramble to complete all the preparations to welcome the royal family and assure their stay is as grand as possible.
The plot is not the headliner here. The pleasure of Downton Abbey, as I’m sure it was for the show, is in seeing all of these different personalities clash together. From the wealthy upper class gossiping in gorgeously decorated rooms and halls, to the valets, maids and footmen in the lower kitchen or servant’s quarters, Fellowes’ writing and Engler’s direction glides about these areas with elegance. Mark Day’s editing balances the importance between both sides. Head cook Mrs. Patmore’s (Lesley Nicol) stress over what to cook for the King takes just as much precedence as Lady Mary’s worry about keeping the estate financially afloat.
Downton Abbey reminded me quite of bit of Robert Altman’s masterpiece, Gosford Park (2001), which was also about a wealthy English estate. As it so happens, Fellowes was the scriptwriter for that film as well. Although Downton Abbey doesn’t have the visual flair of Gosford Park, it still manages to make this environment – a place that is defined by the time it’s set – come alive in the details. From the extravagant clothing, fine silverware, music, to the magnificent architecture of the house itself, the tone has a nostalgic quality, as though the story were written on old parchment paper. There were moments where I drew away from the plot just to admire the aesthetic quality put on the screen.
Certain characters stood out. Thomas Barrow – as some of you may or may not know – lives a certain way that his generation is not yet ready to accept, and thus he is placed as an outsider both in his personal and work life. Kevin Doyle is hilarious as Mr. Molesey, a servant so overwhelmed to be serving the royal family that he finds the worst ways to make things awkward. And of course, we cannot forget Maggie Smith as the matriarch of the Crawley family, whose sharp tongue and quick wit makes her the highlight of just about every scene she’s in. Her frequent verbal sparring with Phyllis Logan is must see entertainment.
There are instances where the narrative falls a bit too much in love with the pageantry. A particular parade scene felt shoehorned into the plot. The assumption is that the parade is to show how the community has become part of this event, but everyone who lives outside the main estate just felt like nameless faces. To make matters worse, the scene is accompanied by an act of violence that is staged and executed clumsily. It comes and is forgotten about so quickly that it’s a wonder why it was ever included to begin with.
But even with those minor missteps, I think that anyone that has enough interest to see Downton Abbey will get exactly what they’re looking for. Established fans will have their joy solidified even further, and first-time viewers may be persuaded to go back and watch the show from the beginning. That’s a win for everyone.