Watching the Downton Abbey movie is like going to a school reunion. Here are all the old familiar faces! My, your kid is getting so grown-up, Anna! Lovely to see you, how’s life in the kitchen, Mrs Patmore? What’s so-and-so-up to these days, still running that motor shop? Gosh, this place used to seem bigger, didn’t it?
And at first, if you’ll excuse a second simile, returning to Downton is like slipping into a warm bath.
It’s a comforting bubble bath of nostalgia, especially when John Lunn’s well-known theme kicks in with the piano and the strings (what a rousing tune!). But unless you have a good book or something fun to watch, even a soak in the tub gets a bit boring after a while – and that’s the trouble with the Downton movie.
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What the film lacks is any sense of real jeopardy. As we found out from the trailer, the big plot-line is this: the King and Queen are coming to dinner and Downton must be made perfect! But that simple story is stretched out to a full two hours of incredibly low-stakes, predictable drama with an overabundance of sub-plots.
It’s frankly disappointing. Back in its ITV days, the show certainly wasn’t an action-packed thriller, but it did give us plenty of proper excitement: secret pregnancies, illicit affairs, tragic deaths, Lord Grantham projectile vomiting blood over the dinner table, and even Lady Mary screwing a Turkish diplomat to death. There was always something happening at Downton.
But now, in this long-awaited movie, we get a royal visit – and that’s pretty much it. No dead diplomats and no exploding stomach ulcers in sight.
Also predictably, the Downton movie is very much in love with the King and Queen. Creator and writer Julian Fellowes is clearly a fan of the gang at Buckingham Palace. However, even the most dedicated monarchists, the people who dress as union jacks and camp outside the hospital every time a princess is due to give birth – even they might find this a bit over-the-top.
Naturally, there are nods to anti-royal feeling as politically-awakened Daisy complains about the cost and the fuss of a royal visit. But if you’re a republican, or if you appreciate not being bludgeoned over the head with pro-royal sentiment, then this might not be the ticket for you.
On another note: the producers of the Downton Abbey movie have done well to bring back so many of our favourite characters, especially when many of the actors have such packed schedules these days. That’s an impressive achievement. To the extent that this movie works at all, it works because the original cast is 100 per cent on board.
That includes Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, played so memorably by Dame Maggie Smith (who previously said that a movie adaptation might be “squeezing it dry”, but has since had an un-Dowager-like change of mind). Of course, the movie is absolutely drowning in Dowager-isms, some directed at her old sparring partner Isobel (Penelope Wilton) but many fired at newcomer Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) who gives as good as she gets. Most of her quips are predictable, but a few are laugh-out-loud funny – and there are even some unexpected emotional moments.
Still, with everyone needing to get some screen time, that means we are treated to a lot of sub-plots as each character gets their own emotional story arc.
On TV, there was time to explore different threads and highlight specific characters as the series went on; but the movie gives us a whole series-worth of storylines draped over one lacklustre main plot.
That said, one person does get a nice big story arc, and that person is Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), Downton’s once-evil footman who is now Officially Nice and heading up the servants’ hall as butler. Without saying too much, the movie lets him escape the confines of Downton and gives him his own adventure – and his own romance.
The Downton Abbey movie is not made for critics. It is made for fans, and it will certainly please many. Maybe it will even be a box office hit. But others may find themselves disappointed to have waited so long for something so middling.
The Downton Abbey movie is released on Friday 13th September 2019