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Non-Review Review: Downton Abbey – The Movie

Like the television series from which it is derived, Downton Abbey: The Movie certainly has its charms.

Most of these charms are plain and self-evident, examples of why the British period drama has endured as a high-end guilty pleasure for so long. There is something inherently appealing about assembling a crowd of talented actors, dressing them in beautiful clothes, and asking them to have polite-but-wry conversations in luxuriant surroundings. Downton Abbey benefited from a combination of elements, but largely lavish production design, an idyllic setting and a winning cast. Naturally, all of those elements carry over to the feature film adaptation – give or take Dan Stevens and Lily James.

Motor sensational, Paris or maybe hell.
Clutches of sad remains.

In many ways, The Movie feels like an extension of the British tradition of the Christmas Special – those seasonal themed episodes of television institutions like Doctor Who or Only Fools and Horses or Call the Midwife. The goal is something approaching celebratory nostalgia for the object in question, a light story populated by familiar characters in comfortable surroundings designed to be consumed by an audience coalescing on the couch after a hearty dinner. The budget is typically larger. There’s typically some weight emotional import, but coupled with a sense that nothing too dangerous is happening.

The Movie commits to this aesthetic, leaving it particularly inert and unengaging. Downton Abbey was always exquisite television comfort food, a light cream desert of a Sunday evening. The Movie takes that lightness and wraps it in cotton wool, creating an eerie and uncanny level of insulation. Downton Abbey was always a story of nostalgia for an idealised early-twentieth-century Britain, but The Movie plays almost as nostalgia for that nostalgia.

Millions weep a fountain, just in case of sunrise.

The basic plot of The Movie is largely what is to be expected for these sorts of reunions. The story itself isn’t especially important, designed primarily to serve as an excuse to bring these characters together and to provide an opportunity to immerse the audience in this world once again. Indeed, it’s notable how similar the basic structure of The Movie is to the recent Deadwood: The Movie, another feature-length follow-up to a period drama series. It’s possible to map the plots of the two movies on top of one another, if only to demonstrate how important execution is in these sorts of exercises.

Both Downton Abbey and Deadwood are built around a major event in the lives of their communities, the visit of royalty. In Deadwood, that royalty is political; the return of George Hearst as a United States Senator. In Downton Abbey, that royalty is literal; a visit of King George V and Queen Mary of Teck. Both Downton Abbey and Deadwood hinge these returns around the promised “happily ever after” endings of a wedding. In Downton Abbey, Daisy and Andy are debating the date for their looming wedding while another character gets his own second chance at happiness. In Deadwood, Sol and Trixie finally tie the knot.

Good Lord.

Downton Abbey leans even more heavily into the tropes of these kinds of stories. As with some of the series’ holiday specials, there is a little bit of stunt casting as a previously-unseen member of the extended family drifts back into the orbit of the Crawley family. The series had previously cast Shirley Maclaine and Paul Giamatti as the American relatives of Lady Grantham. The feature film introduces Imelda Staunton as Lady Bagshaw, a distant cousin of Lord Grantham, who is drawn back into the family by the looming royal visit.

Similarly, the series ices the cake by even playing out the familiar cliché of the beloved veteran character being drafted out of seemingly happy retirement (usually of the kind suggested by the end of the series) in order to do one last job. In this case, it is the stoic butler Carson who finds himself recruited by Lady Mary Crawley when – in the kind of stakes that only Downton Abbey can convincingly sell – his replacement (politely) refuses to preemptively buff the estate’s entire silverware collection and instead opts to wait for the royal household staff to specify what they would want to use.

Dine young things.

That confrontation over good cleaning policy is about as tense as The Movie ever gets. There is not a single raised voice, nor is there a single discernible threat. There is simply awkward politeness masking frustration on both ends of the conversation, but with either side unable to properly express their opinions on polishing best practice because of the social norms of the era. It’s not exactly thrilling or exciting, but that’s entirely the point. In fact, when The Movie does aim for thrilling or exciting – with a botched assassination attempt, for example – it’s clumsy and awkward. It is very much outside it’s element.

Even the title “The Movie” feels like a misnomer. The film is directed by Michael Engler, an Emmy-winning director best known for his work in television; including some late episodes and a Christmas Special of Downton Abbey. The film looks and feels like a television episode, which is striking when considered in the context of twenty-first century television – even British television. Even a show like Doctor Who was able to draft in feature film directors like Kill List‘s Ben Wheatley or Tank Girl‘s Rachel Talalay to give episodes a sense of cinematic scale. In contrast, The Movie looks and feels like it was shot for television.

Let it Abbey.

After all, something like Downton Abbey should lend itself to cinematic storytelling quite easily. It has a large cast and a beautiful setting. It should be easy enough to translate that sort of narrative to a larger scale. With a larger budget and a longer production cycle, it should be possible to produce a more ambitious and luxuriant exploration of the Grantham estate. After all, these sorts of stories – stories of bustling households divided along class lines – lend themselves to long takes and creative framing to help map the geography of the environment. In contrast, The Movie is just flat.

To be fair to Engler, he can shoot the sort of scenes that one expects of Downton Abbey. There is, inevitably, a climactic scene that takes place at an evening ball which looks absolutely lovely, like something from those early nineties BBC adaptations of classic period books like Pride and Prejudice. There is an undeniable beauty in the sight of beautiful people in beautiful dress in beautiful surroundings, moving in rhythm to classical music. However, Engler is uncomfortable whenever pushed even marginally outside his comfort zone, such as trying to depict the passage of a royal parade through a small Yorkshire town.

Driving the point home.

Again, maybe there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. The Movie works best when it plays to Downton Abbey‘s established strengths. There’s a gleeful delight in a subplot that finds Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton playing what amount to upper-crust private detectives prying into issues of inheritance, bantering and snapping at one another like old partners who know just what buttons to press to rile each other. And maybe this makes sense. What is Downton Abbey but comfort food, familiar trappings and comfortable routine, served up to audiences without any sharp edges or unnecessary complications?

In its own way, Downton Abbey: The Movie is no different than Avengers: Endgame. Indeed, watching it with an audience, one observes the same beats and rhythms; the gasp at a seemingly mundane revelation from a major character, the laugh at the wry self-aware one-liner from a fan favourite character that slightly undercuts the dramatic weight of the scene, the tension in the air as the film contrives to offer a largely unearned (but deeply desired) happy ending for a fan favourite character. There are laughs, there are tears. There is a sense in which the principle appeal of The Movie is checking in with old friends.

Standing apart.

There is nothing wrong with this, but it does feel rather shallow. As with Endgame, there is never a sense that The Movie has anything insightful to say about its characters or the world they inhabit beyond acknowledging the comforts of that world. (Say what one will about X-Men: Dark Phoenix, but at the very least it was engaged with both the futility of respectability politics and the re-alignment of the modern entertainment landscape.) It is particularly frustrating in a context where there is a lot to say about the sort of nostalgia present in The Movie, as Britain hurls towards Brexit propelled by the nostalgic fantasy of Empire.

The Movie never really interrogates the world that the Crawleys inhabit. The film is set in 1927, between the two world wars. There is some brief discussion about how the estate is growing more difficult to manage, but the majority of the serving staff are still hanging around and the household staff can still casually purchase twice as much food as they actually need for the royal visit without running massively into debt. There is never a sense of decline or decay, the spectre of collapse is only fleetingly acknowledged so that it can be reassuringly dismissed. The film assures its audience that Downton Abbey shall endure.

Still doing it by the book.

It is too much to argue that something like The Little Stranger feels like a better or more interesting approach to a Downton Abbey feature film than The Movie as presented. However, one of the more frustrating aspects of The Movie is the way in which it refracts the original nostalgia of Downton Abbey. After all, Downton Abbey was nostalgic for a version of British life that may never have actually existed, like an uncritical Mad Men, but it still allowed big ideas to occasionally creep in around the edge of its soap opera narratives. In contrast, The Movie applies another layer of smoothing atop of that.

As such, The Movie is less an exploration or nostalgic depiction of traditional British class values as an ardent romantic defense of them. Everything has its place, and it was best when everybody knew theirs. The servants in Downton Abbey define themselves in service, and a large part of The Movie is given over to a plot about the household staff asserting their desire to serve the King and Queen. They are angry when the royal staff arrive to usurp their position in the household, which seems hypocritical when nobody is particularly upset to see Carson usurping the position of his replacement, Thomas Barrow.

All in line.

Of course, Downton Abbey insists that there is love in these bonds of service. “You’re a good friend to me, Anna,” Mary Talbot tells her maid. Anna replies, “I hope that we are good friends to each other.” When an over-eager servant breaks protocol to correct the Queen of England, he is not immediately silenced or dismissed as one would imagine he would be in real life; the Queen pauses to offer her support and encouragement to the entire house staff. The most brutal betrayal in the world of The Movie is that of a servant who dares to resent the sheer opulence of her social betters, and portrayed as a monstrous fiend for that.

None of this is to suggest that The Movie actually cares about the lower classes. While there is a subplot that finds the Crawley family setting out chairs in the middle of a rainstorm to prove how grounded they are and how unafraid of work, there is also a subplot that hinges very heavily on the anxiety that a member of the serving class might find herself elevated when her employer passes away. This fear is singularly troubling within the world of Downton Abbey, and that fear of upward social mobility is only diffused when it is revealed that the servant in question was actually secretly upper class all along.

Old friend made Goode.

Perhaps this is most obvious in the emphasis that The Movie places on the character of Tom Branson, the Irish working class chauffeur who found himself elevated into the family by marriage. The Movie devotes a lot of narrative real estate to Tom, who is really the only major character who becomes in several major subplots. Tom becomes embroiled in a thwarted assassination attempt, but also offers important life advice to both Princess Mary and to the mysterious servant Lucy Smith.

However, The Movie treats Tom as something of a symbol – a token. He is the token Irishman during the royal visit, the token working class sounding board in conversation with Princess Mary, and the token social climber in his interactions with Lucy. Tom is never allowed to be his own character, as demonstrated by the way in which the film ping-pongs him through its various narrative strands. Tom is whatever the other characters need him to be in a given scene. He repeatedly and skillfully avoids articulating any potentially troubling or upsetting opinions.

My Fair Lady.

In the world of The Movie, Tom is an exemplar; he is proof that the world is a meritocracy and that people can transcend their backgrounds to become part of the upper class. Tom is Irish, but he can converse politely with the King of England. (When one character claims to be acting for Irish independence, Mary responds, “I thought Ireland was already independent.” Of course the Crawleys, like a lot of contemporary Britain have forgotten that Northern Ireland exists.) It is notable that The Movie suggests the ultimate conclusion of Tom’s arc is to confer legitimacy upon him, of folding him completely into the upper class.

Even when The Movie does acknowledge the rough edges of early twentieth century Britain, it offers a light shrug rather than a stern condemnation. When one character finds themselves caught up in a brutal homophobic sting operation – on their first time attending a gay speakeasy – the film offers a halfhearted “well, things get better” rumination on social progress. There is no acknowledgement of how beloved figures like Robert Crawley or Charles Carson would most likely respond to discovering that supporting character’s sexuality, because that would shatter the nostalgic sentimentality that infuses The Movie.

The honour is to serve.

The Movie is a light confection of a film. It is cotton candy wrapped around even more cotton candy. It offers nothing more than “more of the same”, which might be enough, but suggests the modest ambitions of those lost in nostalgia.

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