October 23, 2019

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Movie adaptation fails to live up to beloved series

Downton Abbey an alluring reunion but storyline falls flat

When we left the denizens of Downton Abbey, it was 1926 and the beloved PBS series had wrapped everything up in a tidy little packet, bringing to a satisfying close the tumultuous lives of those — both above and below stairs — living in the British manor house.

Movie review

Downton Abbey
● Starring Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville and
● Grant Park, Kildonan Place, McGillivray, Polo Park, St. Vital
PG
● 122 minutes
★★1/2 out of five

 

OTHER VOICES

Downton Abbey is eye and ear candy of the highest order: rich and delicious, but not especially nutritious.

— Michael O'Sullivan, Washington Post

Downton Abbey
●Starring Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville and
●Grant Park, Kildonan Place, McGillivray, Polo Park, St. Vital
PG
●122 minutes
★★1/2 out of five

 

OTHER VOICES

Downton Abbey is eye and ear candy of the highest order: rich and delicious, but not especially nutritious.

— Michael O'Sullivan, Washington Post

Downton Abbey, an enjoyable but uneven film adaptation of the beloved PBS series, seems designed to give fans what they want.

— Carla Meyer, San Francisco Chronicle

A charming, if contrived, extra narrative chapter that will please most loyalists but mean little to viewers unfamiliar with the upstairs-downstairs world of the Crawley family and those who serve them.

— Cameron Meier, Orlando Weekly

An enjoyable reunion (of) a beloved television series for those who followed it faithfully, but it fails to convince a big-screen upgrade was necessary.

— Laura Clifford, Reeling Reviews

The only reason for reopening that neat little gift, it would seem, is the lure of boatloads of money, and Downton Abbey the film feels very much like an exercise in paycheque collection.

Still, there’s no denying the allure of seeing old friends — the kind we’ve welcomed into our living rooms on a weekly basis — onscreen again, and the ensemble cast settles comfortably into their roles.

There is laughter, there are tears; everything befitting A Very Special Episode.

It’s 1927 and the Earl of Grantham, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), has just received word that Downton Abbey is to have house guests: the King and Queen are paying a visit. (For those not up on their monarchy, this is King George V and Queen Mary, the grandparents of Queen Elizabeth; their names are not mentioned in the film.)

The house is thrown into a tizzy — a combination of anticipation, pride and worry. The earl’s daughter, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), who is now running Downton, is more put out than pleased; Tom (Allen Leech), her Irish Republican brother-in-law, has no love for the Royal Family.

Below stairs, however, the mood is more upbeat, if frantic, as the staff looks forward to the momentous occasion of serving the King. New butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) is keeping a cool head, but others fear the visit requires the supervision of Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), his august predecessor.

Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Grantham, and Hugh Bonneville, as Lord Grantham, star in Downton Abbey. (Jaap Buitendijk / Focus Features)

Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Grantham, and Hugh Bonneville, as Lord Grantham, star in Downton Abbey. (Jaap Buitendijk / Focus Features)

Much of what moved the series along was class division and there are some delicious moments when the Downton scullery crew and footmen realize they’re about to be usurped by the royal staff, who are clearly a cut above in rank — something the imperious Mr. Wilson (David Haig), butler to the King, makes very clear.

What the series, thanks largely to writer/creator Julian Fellowes, did so well was to make the inconsequential or trivial seem monumental. The series also dealt with tragedy, of course — untimely deaths, grave illness, wrongful imprisonment — but viewers were just as invested in the bickering and backstabbing of the Dowager Countess Violet Crawley’s (Maggie Smith) staff or Lady Mary’s scandalously short bob. The wrong spoon at dinner could be as devastating as a child born out of wedlock.

But in the film — which is crammed to the rafters with subplots — mountains feel like molehills, molehills like anthills. When an assassination plot is resolved with barely a scuffle or another word about it, it’s hard to be invested in who might be stealing the bibelots from the study.

Many viewers would likely be happy to spend a full two hours watching cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) berate her assistant Daisy (Sophie McShera), while Mr. Molseley (Kevin Doyle) dithered over which silver candelabra to use. Household intrigue was the series’ bread and butter; we never tired of ladies maid Anna (Joanna Froggat) and her quiet competence in the face of frivolous demands or the withering barbs traded between doyenne Violet Crawley and her reluctant companion Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton).

Even the question of Barrow’s sexuality, which is also addressed in a rather more elaborate and sensitive subplot, would be worth pursuing in greater detail.

Lesley Nicol (from left), Sophie McShera, Jim Carter and Phyllis Logan all return in the Downton Abbey movie. (Jaap Buitendijk / Focus Features)

Lesley Nicol (from left), Sophie McShera, Jim Carter and Phyllis Logan all return in the Downton Abbey movie. (Jaap Buitendijk / Focus Features)

Instead, Fellowes has included a lot of new characters that we’re not very interested in and given them stories we can’t possibly be invested in. There’s all kinds of bother over the queen’s lady-in-waiting, Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), a distant cousin who apparently owes her inheritance to Robert (yawn). And he involves us in the troubles of Princess Mary (Kate Phillips), though it’s tough to inspire sympathy for the loveless marriage of a character we’ve met only fleetingly.

But fear not: these and multiple other strings are tied up in beautiful bows, and if it feels like pandering, it’s satisfying nonetheless. If the neatly wrapped gift of the Downton Abbey series finale had to be torn open, at least it’s been taped back up without too many loose ends.

jill.wilson@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @dedaumier

Jill Wilson

Jill Wilson
Senior copy editor

Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.

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