Downton Abbey ★★★
The King, and Hollywood, come to Downton
Fans of the television series (2010-2015) won’t be disappointed. It’s all here: a superb cast, costumed to the hilt and adept at repartee, showcasing Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley, the witty and overbearing matriarch of the Crawley clan (“What is a weekend?”); that impressive, unfathomably large manor house, surrounded by fields of grass that get mowed, it seems, every day; dozens of characters—enough to keep a new viewer wondering who everyone is—upstairs and downstairs, each with a story, many with unfulfilled needs and desires.
Even the opening of the film reprises television’s season 1, episode 1, a powerful steam locomotive cutting through the English countryside (the proverbial machine in the garden), in each case bringing an announcement: in the first episode it’s word of the 1912 sinking of the Titanic; in the film, set in 1927, it’s the announcement of an upcoming visit by King George V (Simon Jones) and his entourage, an event that will shake things up at Downton, in a highly entertaining way.
What one won’t experience in this look at Downton is conflict between the manor’s social classes—the gentry and their servants. While the King’s arrival comes with ample anxiety and stress for all involved, the tension never spills over into the expected spats between employer—Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville)—and his housekeeping employees. For the Earl and his manager-in-waiting daughter, Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery), running Downton seems to be more about playing with children, sipping champagne, and attending elegant parties than it is about making sure the dozens of servants it takes to run the manor’s business do their jobs.
Class doesn’t disappear; in this environment, and at this moment, it seems to have no consequence. In fact, in the midst of this rigid social order, two characters possess something akin to upward social mobility: Tom Branson (Allen Leach), an Irish chauffeur who had married into the family, only to be widowed, finds the prospect of romance with the maid and clandestine heir Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton). Moreover, there is an absence of any portrayal of poverty or of a true lower class. One could view “Downton Abbey” as an escape from the “class warfare” exacerbated by the language of current politicians such as Donald Trump in the U.S. and Boris Johnson in the U.K.—a 21st-century fantasy for fraught times, ala the Great Depression’s “My Man Godfrey” (1936).
To be sure, there’s plenty of sniping, much of it in fun and funny, some of it biting and even nasty: Violet to Isobel Crawley Grey (Penelope Wilton), who married into the Crawley family, about the impending encounter with the royal family, “Will you have enough clichés to get you through the visit?” Isobel, giving as good as she gets, responds, “If not, I’ll come to you.”
But the sniping is all intra-class. The servants, especially, get at each other. There’s the hectoring straw-boss, Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), and the footman, Andy Parker (Michael Fox), who can’t contain his jealousy when his girl, the cook’s assistant Daisy Mason (Sophie McShera), flirts with the plumber from town. Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt), the lady’s maid to Lady Mary, leads a revolt within the house, but it’s a revolt not against management but against the arrogant, snobbish servants of the King, who threaten to displace and humiliate the Downton locals. When Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle), an insecure and mistake-prone server, makes an ill-considered comment that quiets the dinner table, Queen Mary (Geraldine James) saves the day, and the issue is soon forgotten.
The film wasn’t made in Hollywood, but it outdoes the SoCal film factory in one key respect: everything, yes everything, gets resolved, and fairly quickly. That makes us feel good—perhaps too good. Several examples, of the dozen one might offer, must suffice. As the film opens, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), experiencing the boredom and status anxieties of retirement, is rescued, brought back into service to deal with the King and Queen and their bunch. Tom foils an IRA assassination plot and gets the girl. Maud Bagshaw (nee Crawley) (Imelda Staunton) confesses she has an illegitimate daughter, and in doing so she relieves Violet’s concern that Downton will fall into the hands of a non-elite. Thanks to Tom’s sage advice, Princess Mary reconciles to living with an old crotchety guy. More sage advice, from her maid, moves Lady Mary to appreciate Downton’s over-size role in the community and to commit herself to managing the manor for the rest of her life; her husband nods in agreement. Daisy interprets Andy’s pique of jealousy as a sign of his profound love and willingness to take risks, and decides to marry him. The royal couple—thanks to the Queen--finally understands that the pregnant Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) needs her husband at home, and makes it happen. Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) temporarily loses his job as butler, but the free time yields the underground world of homosexuality.
Sometimes you get what you need; in this film, everyone—except the King’s obnoxious, elitist servants—does. Welcome to the Hollywood version of Downton Abbey.
Director: Michael Engler
Starring: Maggie Smith, Michelle Dockery, Hugh Bonneville, Jim Carter, Imelda Staunton, Allen Leech, Elizabeth McGovern, Joanne Froggatt, Sophie McShera, Michael Fox, Lesley Nicol, Robert James-Collier, Tuppence Middleton, Geraldine James, Phyllis Logan, Penelope Wilton, Kevin Doyle, Simon Jones, Laura Carmichael, Kate Phillips, Geraldine James, Matthew Goode, Max Brown, Brendan Coyle,
Runtime: 122 minutes