Movie Review: Downton Abbey (Second Opinion)
Earlier our Head of the House took a look at this movie from the perspective of a newcomer to the saga. But now I feel it is time for the opinion of a reviewer who was there in front of the TV every Sunday night wearing a “Free Bates” T-shirt. I am an unabashed fan of Downton Abbey who for five years was hooked on watching a sprawling cast of characters face challenges and growth over the course of 52 episodes, until series creator Julian Fellowes pulled off the rare feat of a series finale which tied everything up nicely and sent everyone home happy. So when I learned Fellowes was working to return to Downton only this time on the big screen I wondered where he could possibly take the Crawley family and their staff next. Turns out it was giving the stately home two visitors in the form of King George V and Queen Mary.
Despite the fact the monarchy is coming for only a single night, it creates several days worth of chaos for those who live both upstairs and downstairs at the Abbey. The Lord of Grantham, Robert Crawley summons his family and staff together to ensure everything is in top shape for the royal visit. His eldest daughter Lady Mary sees this as the perfect example to show off the estate and works like mad to get everything in order. Coinciding with the visit a stranger comes to town looking to bring Crawley’s son-in-law Branson into a conspiracy. For the staff elation over being able to practice their craft for the King of Queen of England is dashed when the army of royal servants takeover every aspect of the stay. When the butler Barrow finds himself in over his head, Mary recruits Mr. Carson out of retirement to take on the role of butler once more (though he does not fare much better). Everything finally comes to a head on the night the king and queen are set to dine with the family in what will become a milestone in the history of the house.
Of course with the move to the big screen everything has to be bigger in scope. Director Michael Engler a veteran of the series gets a host of cinematic toys to plays with which he uses to perfection. Tools such as drones and digital filming are not used as a crutch for the filmmaker rather he uses them appropriately to add to the grandeur of the story. It is refreshing to see a director use such things with restraint for enhancement purposes instead of going overboard. It pays off in spades as the splendor of the ornate period sets and the costumes have never looked better. As Gfunk pointed out in his review, even if you had never seen a single episode of the series Julian Fellowes’ script does a masterful job of ensuring you will not be alienated. You do not need to know the oft-tragic character arc of Thomas Barrow or how Lady Mary fought the patriarchy to take leadership of Downton following the death of her first husband. What you need to know about all of these characters for the sake of this narrative of the film is neatly laid out.
Seeing as how it has been a few years since all of these gifted actors and actresses wandered the halls of Downton Abbey one might wonder if they were at all rusty. I am happy to say they slip back into these characters like a well-fitted tuxedo or ball gown. Joanne Froggatt is still dangerously clever as Anna the role which netted her an Emmy in 2015, Hugh Bonneville is still stately but affable as the family patriarch Lord Crawley, and Jim Carter as Carson is still lovably stern and dutiful. As fans of the show know, one of the highlights of each episode is the verbal sparring between Dame Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess and Penelope Wilton’s Cousin Isobel. But with the larger scope of a film it makes sense to add a third to this and Imelda Staunton as estranged cousin Maud Bagshaw fits in perfectly. No doubt viewers of the show will regret the exclusion of fan favorite characters like; Spratt, Doctor Clarkson, Mr. Mason or Cousin Rose but realistically with only 2 hours to work with you can only fit so much.
Whether this is your first trip to Downton Abbey or if you donated your entire life savings to your local PBS station to ensure they keep it showing, there is something in this film for you. Despite the sprawling ensemble each character is beautifully and believably crafted and you will find at the very least one you will become emotionally invested in. The inherent cinematic look and feel of the series translates beautifully to the big screen and one can only hope this is not the last time we see Downton Abbey in cinemas.