‘Downton Abbey’ film review: trashy but addictive

For all those who savoured the 'Downton Abbey' series, the film is nothing short of a delectable guilty pleasure

In 2010, Downton Abbey’s first episode opens with a letter making its way to the Crawley family. The year is 1912, and the letter brings news of the Titanic sinking a day before. The film, released four years after the series ended, opens with a similar sequence. A letter has made its way, on a steam locomotive, to Downton Abbey in 1927. This time the news isn’t catastrophic but enough to fluster all the uptight residents of the Yorkshire country estate: the British king and queen have invited themselves to stay with them for a day. As expected, what may seem like absolutely laughable concerns in 2019, form the backbone of all the drama in the film, rendering what we love the most about the show: aristocratic pettiness.

Downton Abbey movie review
  • Director: Michael Engler
  • Cast: Hugh Bonneville, Jim Carter, Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Penelope Wilton
  • Story line: The King and Queen of England visit the Downton Abbey

The theme song of Downton Abbey along with a panoramic shot of the imposing monarchic structure is enough to evoke memories, and if you have followed the series for five years, as this writer has, then you’d be more than familiar with all the characters, their idiosyncrasies and relationships with each other. The film barely makes an effort to acquaint you with their past or even their present, and that’s one of the best aspects of the film. Unlike the series, which has all the time in the television universe to mull and ponder, the film has only two hours. So the makers have no spare time to mollycoddle the uninitiated, and instead focuses on a few days in 1927, a couple of years before the Great Depression (maybe there’s a sequel there?).

The film functions on three levels: the larger political one (the relevance of the monarchy, the rises of the republican ideology and working-class rebellion), bigger changes in life (pregnancies, affairs, courtships, coming to terms with sexuality and ageing) and everyday trivialities (who will cook for the royal couple, the boiler is damaged, and my favourite: which silverware to use for dinner). The political questions of monarchy and colonialism seemingly lurk in the corners with stray remarks like “The weather proves conclusively that God is a monarchist”. But the film can be quite political in an ironic sense. Watching a shopkeeper describe him selling raw ingredients to Downton Abbey for the royal couple’s visit as “the peak of his career and life” is a hilarious takedown on the frivolity of the monarchy, as seen through contemporary eyes. Their outlandish problems and atavistic behaviour exposes how ridiculous and hollow their gown and hat-clad lives are, sitting in a multiplex auditorium. To see these wealthy folks crumble under inane problems is both comforting and entertaining.

Downton Abbey is an anomaly in many ways. The film is already a huge commercial success in parts of the world where it has released. But it’s neither a superhero franchise nor a series that lends to conspiracy theories, speculations and spin-offs. The ‘world-building’, so to speak, is contained under one roof and the drama rests on traditional tools of storytelling, lending it a classic charm of trashy but addictive dramas. Downton Abbey is foremost a series, which grows on you when you invest hours and hours of your weekend (making you question like Maggie Smith, “What’s a weekend?”) of your life watching these characters evolve. The film, in that light, is barely a film without the series. It’s an ode to these characters and their trivialities, and a reaffirmation that this form of storytelling can still find success in cinema halls, unfettered by superhero franchises.

Stylistically, one can’t tell the difference between the film and the series. The series seldom downsized on scale and authenticity, and the film doesn’t amp-up the opulence. But to see the same period setting, those halls, that kitchen, the costumes and those familiar faces on the big screen brings alive those details that you probably missed on a computer or television screen.

The central appeal of Downton Abbey is undoubtedly Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) and her one-liners. Her resistance against change, yet her innately progressive stance is the essence of Downton Abbey. One can never have enough of her uptight snark, especially the tiffs with Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton). “I never argue, I explain,” she slays. Her moments of vulnerability and the softness under her stiff cuffs, provide for the most emotionally effective moment of the film, predictably. Downton Abbey without Smith is like British summer pudding without berries – it’s just bread.

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Printable version | Jul 11, 2020 7:32:28 AM |

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