Downton Abbey, 2019.
Directed by Michael Engler.
Starring Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith, Elizabeth McGovern, Laura Carmichael, Allen Leech, Rob James-Collier, Jim Carter, Michelle Dockery, Joanne Froggatt, Lesley Nicol, Sophie McShera, Simon Jones, Geraldine James, Imelda Staunton, Stephen Campbell Moore and Tuppence Middleton.
In 1927, the residents of Downton – both upstairs and downstairs – prepare for a visit from the King and Queen.
Downton Abbey is a TV show that lots of people like. I am not one of those people. It’s not that I have any particular dislike for Jullian Fellowes’ oh-so-posh stately home drama, but more that I’ve never had any inclination to step within the walls of the titular building. So it was with the expectation of bafflement that I took my seat for the movie sequel to the series. The most baffling thing, as it turns out, is that they bothered at all.
The plot, such as there is any over-arching story thread, is that King George V (Simon Jones) and his wife (Geraldine James) are stopping off at Downton for one night as part of a tour of Yorkshire. This causes considerable excitement for Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his family, as well as the staff living downstairs led by new butler Barrow (Rob James-Collier). Outside of that, the film – scripted by series creator Fellowes – casts the net as wide as possible in giving just about every character a story of their own.
This would be fine, were it not for the fact that there are at least a hundred characters in the film, with probably a dozen staking a claim to being protagonists. The film spends time with Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess as she sticks her nose into an issue of inheritance, sees Irish family member Tom (Allen Leech) become embroiled in a republican plot around the royal visit and follows under-cook Daisy (Sophie McShera) flirting with an outrageously sexy plumber. Each sub-plot seems more unnecessary than the last and, thanks to its decidedly televisual plotting, there’s no story the movie isn’t willing to wrap up in a flash within a few scenes of it being established.
Downton Abbey is too sprawling for its own good, determined to retain the cast of thousands from its TV days while losing sight of the fact that a film requires a tighter, more rigid approach than an eight-hour series of television. Characters which might have been compelling if they’d been allowed more room to exist are instead compartmentalised into side-quests that don’t ultimately amount to any major part of the central narrative thrust.
It’s less an attempt at telling a narrative feature story with these characters than it is a victory lap for the fans. Everyone gets to walk to the front of the stage and take their bow by virtue of a perfunctory story arc, which is invariably resolved by an overwrought, melodramatic conversation or, more often than not, a throwaway line of dialogue in a crowd scene. It’s notable that the final act of the movie takes up about 45 minutes of the running time, with the script simply waltzing from character to character in order to tie a little bow on their story. This is a movie that is less than the sum of its parts, with those parts often feeling like cogs whirring away separately, rather than as a crucial piece of a coherent central machine.
It doesn’t help matters that Downton Abbey feels like a bastion of cartoonish, aristocratic Britishness, without ever really making a comment on that. The notion of republican politics is briefly discussed by some of the characters in the movie, but the finished product is a monarchist’s wet dream that loves the royals so flagrantly it’s often painful to watch. For all but the most devout royalists, this is more than a little too much. It’s 50% movie, 50% commemorative tea towel.
It’s difficult to criticise Downton Abbey on a filmmaking level, because it never feels like it’s trying to elevate itself from its TV roots. This world is already lavish and opulent in a way that made it perfect for Sunday night television but, on the big screen, director Michael Engler fails to bring any filmmaking flair that communicates a noticeable change in medium. This is all about audiences getting to see their favourite characters for five minutes before everyone has a lovely party in nice frocks at the end.
Downton Abbey is, to boil it down, two exhausting hours of posh people doing posh things in fancy houses. For the fans, it’s doubtless a lovely farewell to the show. But for those yet to fall for the charms of Fellowes’ world, this feels like a misty-eyed ode to monarchy, privilege and plummy voices. It’s certainly not about anything else.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.