Film Review: Downton Abbey ★★★

Lady Edith posing in her underwear! Butler Barrow exploring the seedy gay underworld! Mrs Patmore spilling sauce! It’s high-drama at Downton Abbey as King George and Queen Mary come to stay for the night.

It is perhaps telling that in the world of Downton Abbey the threat of an assassination attempt is less important than whether or not a new ballgown will arrive on time – it’s the kind of ridiculous pomposity that you come to Downton for. Where most films would use slow-motion for an action sequence, or moment of serious drama, Downton director Michael Engler deploys it for waiters carrying dinner trays.

Show creator and screenwriter Julian Fellowes has loaded the film with as many plot points as he would pile into a whole season of the TV show. Each character in the exhaustive cast gets a storyline, from Lady Mary conniving to bring Carson back as butler for the night and the Dowager Countess plotting to ensure an inheritance, to maid Daisy flirting with a hot plumber in front of her fiancé and Anna hunting for a light-fingered visitor. Which means most of the plots get short shrift given the two hour running time.

Thank God they didn’t try to squeeze Lily James’ Rose or Samantha Bond’s Lady Rosamund into the mix. Even ‘national treasure’ Imelda Staunton is shuffled off to a side plot that exists merely to let Maggie Smith’s Dowager scheme and fire off her signature one-liners.

But you don’t come to Downton for reality, you come to Downton to escape to a faded world full of luxury, etiquette and happy endings. This is like porn for stately home lovers, loaded with ballrooms and beautiful hallways and sweeping shots of expansive estates.

There is a joy to watching the downstairs staff wage a secret war against the Royal staff for the ‘honour of Downton’ but the upstairs family get shockingly little to do. Edith (Laura Carmichael) moans about being bored in her role as Lady Hexham (the most high-ranking member of the whole family) that requires attending luncheons and sitting on boards, but relinquishing her career as a publisher. Mary (Michelle Dockery) wonders how long they can hold on to Downton, for what must be the fiftieth time. Lord and Lady Grantham (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern) stand around delivering exposition.

It’s only Tom Branson (Allen Leech), the Irish republican son-in-law, who gets anything to do – including the film’s one and only “action” sequence. His position as the outsider works to his advantage, unwittingly dolling out home-truths to unsuspecting Royals and providing the film’s only real moral message (sometimes it’s best to put aside our personal beliefs for the sake of others). Before he gets back to flirting with a new lady. I’m not sayin’ he’s a gold-digger, but you don’t see him with no broke…

But what about Barrow (Robert James-Collier), the show’s gay butler and former villain? For someone so hot-headed in the early years he takes his temporary demotion with surprisingly little fuss (in the old days he would have stewed for months). Maybe he’s mellowed with age and maturity. On the plus side he gets to have a little holiday and unearth a gay club. Some snogging, some romance, some institutional homophobia, some abuse of privilege.

Much of the series finale has been conveniently forgotten – from Mrs Patmore’s BnB, to Daisy’s new life on a farm – all in the aid of returning us to the warm and familiar status-quo. Lady Mary’s husband Henry (Matthew Goode) is shuffled out of the way – thankfully – we couldn’t handle another plot line!

Much like the Sex and the City film a decade ago, if you’re a fan of the TV show you’ll enjoy the Downton Abbey movie as an extension of the series. If you hate the show, you no doubt won’t bother with it and if you’ve never seen the show there’s a chance you’ll be swept up in the romance of a bygone era.

By Chad Armstrong

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