I wanted to like it, I really did. The hats and frocks are indeed excellent, as are all the fixtures and fittings, silverware polishing and endless clock winding. Downton Abbey
, the movie, is being billed on buses as 'the cinematic event of the year'. I watched it in a packed cinema, filled to the gunnels with fans of the ITV show. In front of me, three women sighed contentedly each time a familiar beau made his trumpeted entrance and chuckled at every catty exchange between old sparring partners Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton as Dowager Countess Grantham and Isobel Grey.
I enjoyed my undemanding Sunday evening viewings of the ITV soap right up until its sixth and final season in 2015. I even welcomed Christmas specials in subsequent years. But there we should have left the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), the whole Crawley brood, and all the rest of them – above and below stairs. Downton Abbey
the movie is a step too far. Its hugely successful run, from 2010 until 2015, delivered a large and loyal international following to the ITV period melodrama. Brought together on the big screen, two years on from when the ITV's series ended in 1925, its stellar cast struggles with a pedestrian script and clichéd filmmaking.
Julian Fellowes, who wrote the original TV series, is again the scriptwriter of the Universal/Carnival film sequel. Since he won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 2001 for the brilliant Gosford Park
, a whodunit set in an English country house in the 1930s, we might feel justified in expecting something similar here. Gosford Park
bristled with textured social critiques of a class system divided by floors, its characters co-mingling in the manner of Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game
(1938), in a comical and melancholy tale of upstairs and downstairs.
However Gosford Park's
director was Robert Altmann who reputedly cast aside much of Fellowes' wordy script in favour of a cinematic rendering of the film's tale. In that earlier film, whether the story unfolds around a dinner table or at a lavish ball, whenever we hear words spoken, they are mainly mere murmurings, as if overheard in passing. Altmann deconstructs the upstairs-downstairs two worlds with wonderful mises-en-scenes and frequently overlapping dialogue, his ever-roving camera picking out mere brushstrokes on a wider canvas. As a committed anti-authoritarian, he takes apart traditional styles and genres – as well as social institutions and conventions.
In stark contrast, under American theatre and television director/producer Michael Engler, Downton Abbey
abounds with tired period costume drama tropes and endless aerial shots of Downton in its fictional Yorkshire estate setting, bathed in early/late morning/evening sun/rain. As the earl listlessly wanders through his mansion looking bemused, cast members lurk in corners or meet under trees to spell out/ confess in words of one syllable that they are about to die/ have had a secret illicit affair and have a hidden-in-plain-sight love-child/ have stolen the house silver/ want to leave their husband but will take advice from the film's most proletarian character, uphold tradition and stay in a loveless marriage.
As the aristo-soap film spin-off takes off in 1927, just a year after the general strike, the household is in a state of extreme excitement over an imminent visit from King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (a well-cast, if underused Geraldine James). A flustered and deferential pageant/pantomime gets under way, complete with pantomime dame/clown in the shape of fawning page Joseph Molesley (Kevin Doyle) whose bended-knee simpering curtsy (modeled, he says, on Theresa May's) to the royal pair elicited as many groans as chuckles from the audience. Revolution foments downstairs when the royal couple arrive with their own staff, including French chef, in tow. The house servants decide to take back control. Battle ensues with the royals' nasty butler (David Haig) and snooty chef for taking away their right to cook for the king and queen.
A further complication concerns the arrival of the dowager countess's estranged cousin Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton, CBE, wife of Jim Carter, OBE, who plays retired butler Mr Carson, called back to help the staff by Lady Mary, played by Michelle Dockery). Lady Bagshaw works for Queen Mary and has no heir for her extensive land and fortune. The Dowager Countess seeks to persuade her cousin to make Lord Grantham, her son, her heir.
Sub-plots proliferate, layered one on top of the other, none given more weight than any other. An attempted assassination of the king and its foiling by Tom, Lord Grantham's Irish republican widower son-in-law, is done and dusted in the blink of an eye, accorded no more weight than disclosure of who is stealing the family silver or what to do about the eccentric plumbing. When the new butler Mr Barrow (Robert James Collier) visits a gay bar for the first time and is picked up by police, the set-piece scenes are oddly affectless.
In the highly theatrical Downton Abbey
everything is clearly signposted a mile off, sub-plots and changing emotions signalled by the Downton Abbey
theme tune gathering volume or giving way to a frisky string orchestra playing waltz tunes over sunny fields. A stellar cast battles valiantly with flaccid dialogue and the one-note cinematography manages to be both lifeless and oddly emphatic at the same time, the small-screen warm intimacy of the Sunday evening show sacrificed to an overblown costume drama. I'd love to say it is all good fun but it is simply tedious.
At one point, to lessen the boredom of the film's obligatory grand ball scene, I allowed my imagination to stray to Visconti's The Leopard
where Burt Lancaster as the duke dances with Claudia Cardinale. The ball takes up almost a third of the film and in its flowing grace conveys centuries of Italy's divided history with scarcely a word spoken. When, in Downton Abbey's
final scene, aristos and royals dance round and round in circles, I just had to laugh.
Scriptwriter Julian Fellowes, a David Cameron-appointee to the House of Lords, adulates the British upper class if this monarchist film is anything to go by. Even Tom abandons his socialism and bows the knee to the grateful king whose head (and daughter's marriage) he has saved. Any telling reference to ruling-class shakiness in the 1920s gives way to arch comments such as: 'My maid was rather curt with me, but she's a communist at heart' – Dowager Countess Grantham's aside on the general strike.
Sight and Sound's
comment on the film's smug tone is apt: 'A wallow in the lavish living and moral certainties of Downton's imagined past, Fellowes' and Engler's film creates a vision of a politically and socially secure Great Britain that has rarely seemed further out of reach'.