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FILM REVIEW – “Downton Abbey” Returns, In the Form of Royally Chaotic Period Drama

Making movies out of wildly successful TV shows has seen a weird, minor renaissance period in the 2010s. First Veronica Mars, then My Little Pony. And now, as the decade ends, perhaps the biggest TV drama to emerge out of Britain into global popularity hits the big screen. And if you haven’t really seen the show, your level of enjoyment may be impacted. Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes’ clear-footed passion project is now a feature, determined to allow die-hard fans a little added closure, after a six-season run that had ended nearly four years prior in the states on PBS’s Masterpiece. And they will be most pleased, their favorite characters returning in grand fashion. The more casual fans, much like myself who had only watched the first season at its peak of popularity, will need to take this soapy splash at face value. It is a good enough period drama, exceptionally cast, and confidently written, per Fellowes’s specific, disjointed standards. No wonder why the show did so well.

This mild extension to the Downton brand takes place around familiar ground, picking up just after the series ended, 1927 London. At a time where the city is facing upheaval, and the culture around smaller groups in the community is slowly shifting, some institutions are still welcome. And the manor itself may still be one of them, as the residents rush to prepare for a late-notice royal visit. King George V (Simon Jones) and his entourage peg Downton as one major stop on a nationwide goodwill tour, with the estate set to be for a fanciful ball, and a subdued private dinner.

Clearly, they can invite themselves wherever and whenever with little notice and leave the house staff in a state of frenzied panic. This is something Fellowes certainly feels plenty comfortable with, having built a weird reputation for it in his scripts for Gosford Park and Vanity Fair. Here, his style shows little differentiation, soaking in both character strengths and weaknesses, with mostly TV-versed director Michael Engler (The Chaperone) capturing his frequent collaborator’s cause for chaos. But while continuation remains ever prevalent, with a lively menagerie of intersecting subplots, it’s all but impossible to feel a bit lost in a somewhat middling mix, unable to maintain a decent focus of just what is really happening.

For starters, family patriarch Robert (Hugh Bonneville), Earl of Grantham alongside his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), and daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery) are in persistent disagreement over some financial issues. But they otherwise offer little than serving as sounding boards to the rest of the house staff. Bonneville, forever Mr. Brown in my eyes, remains the cheerful, firm underfoot house leader he always had been. The downstairs staff apparently pose a far more interesting conflict, in staging a revolt against the king’s entourage invading their kitchen and elsewhere. A considerable violation of dignitary protocol, and yet also an enticing one.

Elsewhere, disputes with recently appointed head-butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) will triumphantly pull the retired Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) back in control. And they butt heads, though not all that effectively, particularly as Barrow continually struggles to keep his nose out of trouble, lest the scandal of him falling for the king’s dresser (Max Brown) leak into the tabloids. And there’s somehow a bit of room remaining for able-bodied bickering between the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith, still in her prime) and Lady Maud (Imelda Staunton), a distant cousin, over a potential inheritance in the offing. Needless to say, Dame Maggie has not lost her touch as the queen of impossible-to-top burns with claws all out. And apparently, there’s a random assassination attempt on the king by a roving spy thrown in for no valid reason, other than increasing the tension at the most awkward occasion.

Fellowes, perhaps inadvertently, stuffs his script with an unbalanced load of original elements, and leftover plot devices. Again, astute folks familiar with the series like the back of their minds won’t have much to complain. For me, there were one too many subplots that easily could’ve been condensed. Otherwise, it flows very gracefully, near-symbolically for some, even if it can’t necessarily play to the time capsule motif much of the series always strived for. I’d have been better convinced if we’d seen a more equal clashing of the class system. As is, Engler directs what’s otherwise Fellowes’s cast with rigid integrity.  John Lunn’s familiar themes echo deeply through the chambers. Donal Woods’s eye for set decoration in the sprawling Highclere Castle locations knows no equal. And Mark Day’s editing serves appropriately to sweep us off our feet, making every shot, every cut mean something that’s quietly profound.

Downton Abbey proves as proficient as a period drama can get. Technically speaking, it looks great, and it’s emotionally compelling when Fellowes knows it wants to be. Had I bothered to watch the series, surely my fondness for the characters could outweigh where the story rushes between subplots. At the same time, my desire to revisit the Crawleys’ upper-class antics is slightly mute. It still plays fine as a standalone feature, a decent piece of autumnal comfort food worth a matinee ticket preferably with a friend worthy if clueing in necessary details. The fans who had been ravenously waiting four long years will get few other complaints from me. This big-screen return is most certainly worth it, Fellowes doing right to continue the legend of Downton without missing an expositionary footnote. Though not quite capturing England at its most accurate, we’ll still see some of its strongest fictional residents at their most united. That alone will be worth accepting the random, self-imposed invite. (3/5 Horns Up!)

Downton Abbey opens in most area theaters this weekend; rated PG for thematic elements, some suggestive material, and language; 121 minutes.

Check out the official trailer below…

About Joe Hammerschmidt

Proud WA state native, knows his way too well around three things: the history behind the local radio dial, the understated combination of pizza and root beer, and an endearing enthusiasm for film. Being involved at The Bull, he hopes to build on all three of those, and also contribute to the further growth of Seattle's country music scene. Tomorrow, the world. The next day, Mars!

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