Delightfully Faithful: Our Review of ‘Downton Abbey’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - September 20, 2019
Delightfully Faithful: Our Review of ‘Downton Abbey’

Four years after saying their goodbyes, the residents of Downton have returned. The much beloved series returns bigger than ever (literally, in a 2:39:1 as opposed to the series usual 16:9) and seemingly little has changed since we last departed. Onetime series director Michael Engler takes the director’s seat for the feature length revival of Downton Abbey.

The latest hurdle for the Crawley family comes in the form of a visit from King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (the great Geraldine James). The beloved characters from upstairs and downstairs are back to their usual roles, with the exception of former butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), who enjoys the retiree life just a few kilometers from the Abbey. Upstairs, Robert (Hugh Bonneville) and his mother the Dowager Countess, Violet (Maggie Smith) stir over the future of Downton Abbey. As the end of the 1920s approaches, society has moved past the days of great houses with fully staffed downstairs quarters. Thus, Downton finds itself in financial strain, finally risking the dissolution of the estate.

Hope lies in a fresh face for Downton, that of Violet’s estranged cousin Maud Bagshaw (the brilliant Imelda Staunton), who will join the royal visit. Maud holds a large fortune, the rightful heir to which is technically the Dowager Countess. Downstairs, head housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan, now Mrs. Carson following their series finale marriage) and butler Tom (Robert-James Collier, replacing the now retired Mr. Carson), lead a team who is thrilled to serve the King and Queen. Panic ensues when downstairs learns that the royals will be arriving complete with their own team, leaving the servants with nothing to do, and nothing to brag about. With the help of lady’s maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt), Hughes and Tom hatch a plan to run the royal visit on their own terms.

Yes, this all sounds like the usual for Downton Abbey, and for the most part, it is. Downton Abbey is very much a glorified version of one of the series’ annual feature length Christmas specials. Nevertheless, the return of Downton after its longest absence feels perfectly suited for the big screen. A series so grandiose, with many of Britain’s greatest actors and some of the strongest production design in recent television history is deserving of such a grand reprise.

With the introduction of some new characters, the writer Julien Fellows (credited with every episode of Downton, and an Oscar-winning screenplay for Robert Altman’s Gosford Park) crafts a narrative that can be almost fully appreciated by newcomers. Nevertheless, unlike the Christmas specials, the plot seems a bit constrained by its running time. With such a large leading cast, it becomes impossible to give them each their own narrative. The feature length specials would air just a few months after a full season. In this case, audiences have gone four years without seeing the Crawleys and their downstairs servants. Therefore, the lack of conflict facing the series’ most complex character Anna leaves storylines that are mostly fluff.

While Downton Abbey is mostly a thrill to behold, a visual update to the series would have been more than welcome. Engler directs the film in almost exactly the same manner as one would create an episode of the series. The cinematography, editing, and music remain perfectly faithful, leaving the product without a real sense of cinematic expansion. It seems impossible for any Downton fan to dislike the film, but it cannot be denied that this Downton Abbey feels a little bit too much like an episode of its televised predecessor.


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