Film review: ‘DOWNTON ABBEY’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

The TV series Downtown Abbey, which ran from 2010 to 2015, was a sumptuous soap opera that celebrated and gently critiqued the English aristocracy in its depiction of the well-to-do Crawley family, inhabitants of the titular estate, as they dealt with interpersonal dramas and confronted the tumultuous events and social changes of the early 20th century. Four years after the TV show ended comes the feature length cinema adaptation. Turning a TV series into a movie is an often-perilous exercise. Too frequently filmmakers try to stuff the enormous world of the series into a cliched action, rom-com or melodrama template. While the Downton Abbey film has some cheesy and dubious moments, screenwriter Julian Fellowes and director Michael Engler have managed to do justice to the series while fashioning a coherent film.

The movie, which is set in 1927, often recalls Gosford Park in its depiction of a two-tiered household with the elegant bejewelled lords and ladies swanning around upstairs while the servants feverishly toil away downstairs. The activity at the stately home goes into overdrive when Downtown Abbey is chosen for a royal visit from King George V and Queen Mary. Fellowes uses the visit as a device to allow various characters from the series to converge on the estate. It’s also a catalyst for a succession of mini dramas including long held family conflicts coming to a head, a bitter confrontation between the Downtown staff and the royals’ snooty servants and even an assassination attempt.

Fellowes does a typically impressive job of uniting a multitude of plot threads and character arcs without making the whole thing feel too contrived which can often happen in TV to cinema adaptations.

The overarching theme of this film is the viability of the lifestyle at Downton Abbey which might be interpreted as an attempt to justify the English class system or perhaps a reflection on the shaky situation of contemporary Britain in the midst of Brexit. Political subtext, however, appears to be less of a concern to Fellowes than fashioning memorable characters. As in the series, the film benefits from wonderful performances from its large and varied cast, particularly the posh but sultry Michelle Dockery as heir apparent Lady Mary, Maggie Smith as the superbly acid-tongued Countess of Grantham and Penelope Wilton as Baroness Merton her equally witty sparring partner; they steal the film every time they’re on camera. Noticeably, though, household heads, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his wife the Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) are largely sidelined here.

The movie, like the series, is impeccably shot with lingering vistas of verdant English countryside and the magnificent Abbey itself. Thankfully, Engler brings more life and colour to this film than to his rather musty period drama The Chaperone. As in the TV show the tone is a little too twee and staid at times but Fellowes fashions enough drama to prevent people drifting off.

Fellowes and Engler haven’t produced anything revelatory here, it’s really like a super-sized episode that might have capped off the series on TV but fidelity to the style and character of the TV show is probably what fans want most of all.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2

Genre: Period drama.

Classification: PG.

Director(s): Michael Engler.

Release date: 12th Sept 2019.

Running time: 122 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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