Sheer escapism: Downton Abbey does exactly what you want it to

Stunningly picturesque, Downton Abbey welcomes us back with open arms, and offers us more of what made us love it in the first place.

Downton Abbey

Starring Hugh Bonneville, Jim Carter, Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton and Penelope Wilton

From the opening sequence, it is like being welcomed home after a long period away. Flashbacks to Sunday evenings, curled up on the sofa, with a blanket over your knees, drowsily watching the latest occurrences at Downton Abbey unfold before your eyes. This film is precisely what you would expect a movie instalment of Downton to be. Dramatic plot points are made out of simple matters, like polishing silverware, a damaged boiler and an ill-fitting ball gown. Seething glances are given at tiny breaches in decorum, played out in spectacularly British form.

Escapism at its finest, Downton Abbey is the epitome of wealth porn: a misty look back at (hideously imperfect) times gone by. If you’re expecting a deep dive into the murky depths of the morality of class division, you will be sorely disappointed in this film, but that’s simple not its purpose. It is pure fan service, and the film follows the same beats as the original series, highlighting the differences between the noble Crawley family upstairs, and the staff who work feverishly below making sure everything is in working order.

While this film wouldn’t have been out of place being a TV Christmas special (as Downton has done on many an occasion), there is a sense of everything appearing more grand. The opening sequence itself is dramatic and beautiful, as we follow the journey of a letter from a London desk to the Downton estate via train, van and bike. On the big screen, Highclere Castle is almost otherworldly in its grandeur, as swooping aerial shots make the most of its divine majesty. Even the indoor locations seem to have an added sheen, and the effort has clearly been made for the film adaptation to present all sets and costumes as pristinely as possible.

The subject matter itself explains the need for this tale to be told as a film instead of a television special, as news arrives to Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) that King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) are coming to Downton on their Royal Tour of Yorkshire. This information sets both upstairs and downstairs abuzz with energy, as the entire household is tasked with preparations for the royal visit. The staff of Downton are soon irritated, however, by the revelation that the royals bring with them their own staff, therefore relieving them of their duty. Shaken by this perceived snub, the staff band together to overcome this, rather snooty obstacle. Meanwhile, Lady Violet (the sensational Maggie Smith) schemes to persuade distant cousin Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) into giving her sizeable inheritance to Robert, though Maud harbours a dark secret. Elsewhere, Mary (Michelle Dockery) becomes weary of the constant upkeep required at Downton and starts to consider an end to it, especially in the wake of changing social attitudes towards the upper classes. Edith (Laura Carmichael) is left without a suitable dress for the royal ball (oh the shame), and faces the prospect of being separated from her husband Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton) on the King’s orders while Tom (Allen Leech) faces suspicion as an Irish Republican in the face of the royal visit, and detects a spark of romance with Lady Maud’s mysterious maid Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton).

Julian Fellowes’ writing shines when presenting Downton Abbey for film. Fellowes has a brilliant knack for creating incredible drama and still moments and within a film this really maintains its momentum, especially when there are multiple frenetic moments and myriad characters to keep up with. When stretched out to an eight-episode season (as this film easily could have been), this can result in the series feeling dry and stuffy, instead of as fun and charming as this instalment turned out to be. We still get treated to all the tenets of a Downton outing, with pursed lips and acerbic wit, while also preserving the pace. Unfortunately, the nature of the film does lead to some characters having very little to do. Characters like Bates (Brendan Coyle), Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol), Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), for example, are left with little of meaty substance, while more focus is placed upon fan favourite Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Barrow (Robert James-Collier).

Warmth and humour is littered throughout the script, making great use of Maggie Smith’s comedic ability – sagely so, considering the almost meme-like status that Lady Violet has achieved in the intervening time between the series finale and film. A particular highlight are Lady Violet’s constant attempts to corner Lady Maud with every tactic in her arsenal, including being disarmingly and terrifyingly sweet. While delightful, the film did almost stray a bit too close to Lady Violet becoming a caricature. Fellowes’ sagely includes enough genuine feeling from Violet to show her as a real human being. Similarly amusing is Molesley (Kevin Doyle) who, despite toning down his more asinine qualities in the later series as he transitioned into a school teacher, is back on fine form as the bumbling footman, motivated by a giddy excitement to serve the royal family. Doyle’s performance, as well as superb direction by Michael Engler, make for an utterly hilarious sequence when Molesley’s intense patriotism and loyalty to Downton becomes too much to control.

Blessedly little expository dialogue bogs down this film, which is always a worry when adapting an existing universe to film, and such lines were only thrown in during appropriate conversations. Tom’s position within the Crawley family, for example, was only briefly elucidated when he had to explain it to Lucy Smith, which is a valid reason for such a conversation. It is much more apropos than Mary and Edith, for example, greeting each other with “sister!” for the few audience members who haven’t seen the TV series (disclaimer: no such exchange exists between Mary and Edith). Instead, Fellowes and Engler credit the audience with much more intelligence (and foreknowledge) and elect to communicate such things nonverbally. It is not necessary for the audience to be bludgeoned over the head with a full explanation of the history of Downton (not least because it is ridiculously complicated) when you have all you need to know already: they’re rich and they complain a lot. Done. Sorted.

One of the main appeals of Downton are the characters themselves. One character in particular who benefits from this movie is Barrow. While he has had many dramatic moments throughout the series, a proper exploration of his homosexuality was long overdue – even if his happening upon what must have been the one clandestine gay club in Yorkshire, especially on the same night as a police raid, beggars belief. Dynamics between characters is also a strong point, especially the strong friendship between Mary and Anna, and an entirely gorgeous scene between Mary and Violet in an exchange almost perfectly engineered to make the audience weep. One element on the relationship front that is slightly lacking, however, is the romance: something that the original series succeeded upon very well. The film features two main romances, neither of which are given quite enough development to properly thrive, while the existing couples act mostly separately for the film’s duration. Anna and Bates, for example, barely share a conversation, and Mary’s husband Henry (Matthew Goode) doesn’t appear until the final twenty minutes.

Ultimately, the Downton film does precisely what you expect. It is not meant to be angled towards non-fans of the series, but rather to the audience that it already enjoyed during its six-year run. The dialogue and storyline is as delightful as ever and the film format definitely condenses and streamlines Fellowes’ ideas. Bristling with humour and brilliant manners, it is refreshing to see a film so firmly grounded in reality considering the current blockbuster climate geared towards high action sequences. Downton is not one for sensation, but rather chronicling the lives of its many inhabitants. As Carson (Jim Carter) attests in the final scene, Downton Abbey will be standing for another hundred years, with the Crawleys at its heart. Indeed, after this film, I wouldn’t complain if they released a film for every one of those hundred years.

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