Image Credit: Universal Pictures International (UPI)
Director: Michael Engler
Starring: Maggie Smith, Michelle Dockery, Matthew Goode, Tuppence Middleton
Running Time: 2hr 2min
The fact that a Downton Abbey film has been made probably speaks volumes to the larger issue of the current collective fixation on franchises and sequels, a money grab fuelled by the marvelesque link up of your grandparent’s favourite actors, but not all of these franchises are blessed with the quips of Dame Maggie Smith and they all suffer for it. Downton Abbey, much like its TV counterpart, requires you to leave your cynicism at the door. Director Michael Engler knows what his audience wants and mostly delivers, taking us for a final waltz through the romantic opulence of a bygone world.
The film follows the Crawley family playing host to the King and Queen of England on a royal tour of Yorkshire and documents the ensuing uproar and scandal of it all, both above stairs and below. The Crawley’s have to deal with fractured family politics and the future of the Downton estate, while the servants are faced with the brutish royal staff and have to fight for their right to host the royal visitors in proper Downton manner. It seamlessly picks up where the series left off and is full of the trademark melodrama, intrigue, and cunning schemes of Julian Fellowes’ creation. The lives of one of TV’s most popular aristocratic families and their servants play out in stylish, cinematic fashion yet the familiarity of the world of Downton is possibly the only thing that saves it from becoming a mess of brief intersecting narratives. That is the trouble of trying to translate such a large ensemble cast, which works so well in the realm of TV, effectively onto the big screen; it ends up feeling half baked in places and overstuffed in others. Yet the charm of the TV show was primarily due to this endearing cast of characters, from the Dowager Duchess Lady Grantham (Dame Maggie Smith) right down to Daisy the kitchen maid (Sophie McShera), and this is ultimately the films saving grace. It is formulaic and perhaps predictable in the fact we see characters in familiar scenarios, Tom Branson’s (Allen Leech) politics getting him into trouble for example, but for lovers of the series this will matter not.
Engler utilises the high visual standard set by the series, from the now iconic grand set piece of Highclere Castle to the refined details of the lavish costumes. Audience favourite Mr Carson (Jim Carter) often makes a point of attention to detail throughout the series, and Engler carries this sentiment into his filmmaking, taking the allure of the TV series and injecting it with cinematic flare. The iconic theme and accompanying score by John Lunn gives Downton a particularly nostalgic feel this time around, and many of the performances are simply wonderful, particularly that of Robert James-Collier (Thomas Barrow) and Imelda Staunton (Maud Bagshaw), but it is Maggie Smith’s final outing as the dowager duchess that steals the show.
There’s no grandiose statement made here or attempt at renovating the period drama genre, just a final farewell to the Crawley’s and their servants, it doesn’t try to be anything more, its premise simple yet effective. It is a love letter to the series, made for those who love it, and wastes no time trying to appeal to anyone else. I found myself smiling throughout most of the film, for there is something rather special about seeing characters I grew up watching (the first series was released when I was only ten years old) have one last moment in the sun. I also cried, in a moment of solidarity with the old lady next to me, at a particularly poignant conversation between Lady Grantham (Dame Maggie Smith) and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), for it cements both the purpose and tone of the film, the marking of an end of an era.
While Downton Abbey may not bear the cultural legacy or popularity of the TV series, when viewed for what it is, a romantic, warm, and often funny costume drama, it does what it sets out to do and is an overall rather enjoyable experience.
Editor’s note: this film was screened at City Screen York.