Directed by: Michael Engler
Screenplay by: Julian Fellowes
Starring: Hugh Bonneville, Jim Carter, Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Penelope Wilton
Television turned film is a touchy subject because you don’t necessarily get to see your favorite characters utilized as well as they once were, whether it be because the film format only allows for so much story to be told or because of logistical challenges that don’t allow for a character to breathe. I suppose this is why binge-worthy programming on the likes of Netflix have bloomed recently.
British television on the other hand has managed to capture the essence of serialized television and tell compellingly funny and sometimes blunt stories. Take for instance the famed comedy “Mr. Bean,” a brainchild of Rowan Atkinson – the television series is world-renowned, yet the movie and its subsequent sequels have not fared as well. HBO’s “Entourage” is a good example of a show in the U.S. making a similar transition with limited results.
“Downton Abbey,” which ran on ITV in the U.K. and PBS in the U.S. ran from 2010 to 2015 over six seasons and has a devoted following. The story depicts the aristocratic Crawley family and their devout servants between 1912 and 1926. The film, which releases this weekend, picks up after the sixth and last season.
I confess that I have not seen the series it is based on, so homework is in order. Suffice it to say that as a newcomer, I was not entirely lost in this theatrical version of the beloved series. The story set in 1927 sees the Royal Family, King George (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) set to visit the humble Downton Abbey. The family, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), the Earl of Grathnam and Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), the Countess are less-than-excited to receive the Royal couple, but do so dutifully.
There are multiple story lines through the narrative, akin to a soap opera – the family preparing for the royal arrival above board along with the politicking that that tail ensues, the staff below board contending with the Royal Staff descending on their domain, and a subplot involving a threat to the king’s life.
Dame Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley, the Dowager (widow, yes I had to look it up) Countess of Grantham is the most boisterous and loveable of the upper echelon cast and story. She breathes life into a rather stuffy tale of the royal visit as she aims to confront her cousin, Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) over an ongoing dispute over the heir apparent.
The juicy and far more operatic side of the story is the staff below the line, as the Royal Page of the Backstairs, Mr. Wilson (David Haig) informs them that their services will not be required during the Royal visit. Their honour at stake, they will do anything to ensure the integrity of the household by serving the Royal Family. Charles Carson (Jim Carter), the family’s retired butler is called into action before they are informed that their services were not required, but he has the confidence of the staff, especially Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt) and John Bates (Brendan Coyle) and the Crawleys to pull off the Royal Engagement.
As the story bisects each line, we see the characters in their moments. There is a great deal of subtle humor throughout. There was a raw honesty in the third story line involving Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) and Richard Ellis (Max Brown) that I didn’t expect. I’ll leave you to discover it for yourselves, but I think you’ll appreciate that story line as I did.
As interesting as the goings on were at Downton Abbey, I couldn’t help but feel that they stuffed too much into this film. For someone to play catch up, I wasn’t lost, but there were some of the nuances that I would have benefited from had I known the TV series before seeing this film.
Others have mentioned that Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” is a better affaire, and I don’t think they’re wrong. It’s for just a well-established series like “Downton Abbey,” the film does justice to what I can only suspect is a very well-executed television series, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
As you get ready to spend time with the Crawley’s and their staff, I’m going to get caught up with the series and I hope, we’ll meet over a spot of tea to talk shop. Cheerio!
2.75 out of 4