It’s been four years since the television show Downton Abbey went off the air. While not unusual, it is still rather rare for a movie which is essentially a “series coda” to a television show get a theatrical release. But hey, if blockbusters are going to be essentially television episodes for the big screen why can’t a television show get a shot too?
As it turns out the result is a frothy and delightful good time. Which is surprising as I’ve never seen an episode of the show. But, ironically, unlike a certain juggernaut studio, the producers have blessedly given us a movie meant to cap a television show that could be enjoyed without going back and watching every single episode of the show. In other words, anybody could sit down and watch Downton Abbey the film and pick up who is who and what is what and before you know it we’re off to the races.
Michael Engler never holds our hands as he leads us through the Downton manor. We meet the butlers, the maids, the cooks, lords, and ladies of the house, all without the slightest bit of exposition. Instead, Engler drops us smack dab into the middle of the world populated by fully developed characters who already know each other and have long and complicated histories. Downton Abbey is in some ways more an actual movie than most modern movies.
As I’ve said before I’ve never seen the show but I was never lost or confused. Engler has an almost Robert Altman-esque talent for navigating a large cast of characters in such a way we are allowed a sense of who and what everyone is to each other and to the Abbey. The way the characters are arranged in a scene or give each other a subtle look gives us all the clues we need as to how these people are related.
Life at Downton seems relatively drama-free. If there is any drama it is most assuredly drama with a lower case ‘d’. Or at least it is until Robert the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) receives a letter from Buckingham Place. The King and Queen are coming to Downton!
Julien Fellowes’ script uses the royal visit as an excuse to temporarily upset things so as to allow our characters to vent building frustrations, strengthen blossoming romances, and in general help everyone dust off their Sunday best because company is coming. The script, with Engler’s direction, does a smashing job of giving each character just enough as to remain relevant, have us care what happens, while somehow alluding to still other stories not yet revealed.
Make no mistake Downton Abbey is a “stiff upper lip” drama. It’s the type where a character’s happiness and or title is threatened but in the end, it is all sorted out and the babbling brook known as colonial England babbles on. In a weird way, I found the movie, relaxing. Engler and Fellowes craft an even-handed aura which allows us to sit back and just enjoy the show. It reminded me of the old P.G. Wodehouse novels where the worst that could happen would be that Bertie had somehow found himself engaged and desperately needed Jeeves to get him out of his betrothal.
Unlike Wodehouse though, and most other “period pieces” Downton Abbey has the audacity to not only hint at, but outright show, and explore queer existence. Barrow (Robert James-Collier) is the butler of Downton. A young dashing, good looking chap who’s taken over for Mister Carson (Jim Carter.) However, the invasion of royal servants and clashes of personalities seems more than a little overwhelming for mister Barrow and so mister Carson is called back to service by Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery).
Free from his usual duties at Downton mister Barrow goes into town and meets a young man. It just so happens one of the King’s servants has noticed Barrow’s glances and has returned them. Barrow flirts openly, goes to a gay bar, the bar is raided, Barrow gets arrested, and is sprung before they have to go before the judge by his newfound friend.
I haven’t even mentioned how the cook’s assistant Daisy (Sophie McShera) seems to be making eyes at the boiler repairman even though she’s engaged to one of the footmen of the manor. Or how the Irish son-in-law and former chauffeur Tom Branson (Allen Leech) may or may not be embroiled in an assassination attempt on the King. Welcome to Downton Abbey.
If I have a gripe with the movie it’s with how it plays at being progressive or attempts to call attention to its classism, colonialism, and other societal shortcomings. These moments feel like Engler and Fellowes trying to apologize for making a movie about the one percent in an environment that is increasingly, justifiably so, calling for their heads. As mister Barrow walks back after being released from jail he turns to him and asks, “Will they ever accept us?” “Who knows,” his companion shrugs.
Downton Abbey has moments like this scattered about the film. Moments of a character questioning the social mores of the times for the benefit of the audience sitting in the dark. But at no time does it really say anything aside from “Yeah we know this is messed up-but hey what are you going to do?” The issues are mentioned but are never engaged in any serious way.
Lady Talbot, however, is the exception. She is unsure of what to do in these modern times. Worse she’s not even sure she should keep the Abbey. “I’m just so tired of all the dangers. What if the farms fail, what if we get into another war, or we can’t afford the staff?”
Mary even confesses to the Grantham matriarch Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), “Should we exist?” A self-aware remark that I must confess took me aback slightly. The Dowager’s response was thoughtful and shockingly astute. “Things change. The way we do things is different from the way our ancestors did them. Just as the future will do things differently from how we did them.”
Dame Maggie Smith is a pleasure to watch in or out of character. She has an odd mix of regality mixed with a smirk of a woman who has had more than a few drinks with the ladies down at the pub. One of the strengths of Downton Abbey is how perfectly and quickly the actors encapsulate their characters. Engler allows every actor a moment to shine, be it trembling lips of gratitude or the stern closing of the lid of a sewing kit.
It doesn’t hurt that Ben Smithhard’s camera seems to glide effortlessly through both the Abbey and the town. A couple of times the camera will attempt to be “cinematic” by flying through a keyhole as a way to get from one side of the door to the other. But Smithhard’s camera is at its best as it follows these characters up and down the stairs throughout the manor.
It’s in the subtle way Engler blocks his characters which give Downton Abbey it’s true cinematic appeal. The way Lady Grantham and her two sisters are lined up perfectly in order of age as they visit the Princess. The three are lined up in a perfect diagonal on the left side of the screen, allowing for the royalty to be on the right side. It may sound like piffle but sit through countless superhero movies where actors share a scene only because one or all of them have been digitally placed there, and you’ll see what I mean. Smithhard’s camera has a visual acuity lacking in most mainstream blockbuster fare.
The laid back geometric blocking of each scene creates a serenity to Downton Abbey. It is a perfectly conceived drama that never gets too dramatic or too outlandish. Scenes have a crispness and sharpness to them which makes the distinctions between the upper and working glass tangible and almost visceral.
I suppose the zen-like nature of Downton Abbey is part of its charm though. No matter the turbulent personal challenges; at the end of the day, like a port in the storm, sits Downton. Kings and Queens may abdicate the throne, Lords and Ladies may pass, butlers will retire, and emotions will erupt; but no matter- Downton will still be there, with or without us.