WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
It’s been several years since the events of the TV series finale and things are running smoothly at Downton Abbey for both its "upstairs" and "downstairs" members. When news of a royal visit reaches the house, though, that peaceful tranquillity is turned on its head as the Downton staff have to face off against the king’s own entourage, while the lords and ladies upstairs have their own fish to fry, including an attempted assassination, a potential scandal (or five) and a burgeoning romance between the classes. They barely have the time or the inclination to notice the world changing all around them.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
It will undoubtedly surprise no one that most of the responses to the movie spin-off of the massively successful Downton Abbey have been a mix of fans going gaga, critics turning their noses up and Downton doubters – especially the many Brits who are all too aware of the realities of the British class system – snorting in derision. The show itself was often met with this response – a response that only deepened as the show went on to become increasingly popular and reviled in equal measure, so it’s pretty much par for the course that the cinematic adaptation of this fanciful, soapy depiction of British life in the early 20th century would be met with much the same response.
What was less predictable, though, was my own reaction to the film. Until doing my due diligence by watching the pilot episode the night before I was to see the film, I had never watched so much as five minutes of the Downton TV series. I didn’t have any of the working-class angst about it; I simply had absolutely no interest in anything that Downton Abbey was supposedly selling. And, to be honest, the pilot episode did little to dissuade me of my earlier prejudices. A typically terrific Maggie Smith as the matriarch of the family aside, I was thoroughly unimpressed by the boring trivialities of any of these people – certainly not the toffs at the top but not even really those who wait on them hand and foot.
The first few minutes of the film only served to confirm my apathy towards the film as it was just more of these people doing not very much at all. Admittedly, the film was already much funnier than the series and I did find the characters a lot more likeable (the years that the actors and series creator, Julian Fellowes, spent with them has clearly paid off as they felt far more lived-in and significantly less prone to stereotype than they were in the pilot) but I was still a bit bored by it all.
As the film went on, though, I found myself starting to genuinely and unabashedly enjoy myself and what started off as fairly disinterested boredom had morphed into pure delight long before the final credits rolled. Downton Abbey fans are all but guaranteed to love this film, but if my own experience was any indication, it may well make Downton fans of all but the biggest sceptics. Plus, the fact that it continues from the series but requires absolutely no previous knowledge of it whatsoever is a particularly impressive trick that many television-shows-turned-movies fail spectacularly to pull off.
The film may have all the substance of a soufflé, but it’s every bit as tasty. From a cast roll-call that rivals Harry Potter in bringing together a sizeable percentage of the British Isle’s best acting talent (many of today’s greatest young British Thespians actually got their start on Downton Abbey – including some notably absent from the film: Charlie Cox, Dan Stevens and Lily James) to a wonderfully warm and witty script by Fellowes himself, it’s hard not to get swept away in a world that is every bit as fanciful as those of Hogwarts or Narnia. There are some real-world elements that underlie the fantasy, sure, but the same could just as easily be said about Harry Potter or the Narnia novels, after all, and they might even have a bigger foot in reality. The changing landscape of England at the time is always at the back of the film but if you’re looking for scathing social commentary or serious satire, boy, are you in the wrong movie.
This is pure, escapist entertainment made with plenty of love, smarts and laugh-out-loud humour, featuring a great cast clearly having the time of their lives. It is about as indulgent as you might expect something like this to be, but even that’s not quite the curse one might have expected it to be. Partly because spending time with these characters and the A-list cast who portray them is really no great difficulty but partly because that indulgence cuts both ways.
Yes, there are more sub-plots than the film knows what to do with, but this gives each of the characters more time to shine. And, however much it might be tempting to write it all off as an excuse to indulge in some fabulous, high-class ‘20s set-dressing and fashion, one really can’t deny just how great the film looks. For something that takes place largely in a single location and is based on a TV series, it’s amazing just how cinematic the Downton Abbey movie turned out to be.
And, honestly, if nothing else, I can easily watch an entire movie of just Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton and Penelope Wilton riffing with one other as a trio of seriously funny grand old dames. It just so happens, though, that may easily steal the show, there’s tons to pull at the heartstrings and tickle the old funny bone even when the film dares to move away from them to tell the stories of the other fifteen-dozen main cast members.
The whole thing was such a pleasurable and quietly uplifting way to spend a couple of hours that I may just have to start watching the series itself. And, for a film that largely couldn’t be bothered with surprising the audience, who on earth saw that coming?