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Film review: Downton Abbey

16 September 2019

Stephen Brown views the cinematic sequel to the TV costume drama



JUST when we thought it had ended, Downton Abbey (Cert. PG) is now a film. It’s 1927. The General Strike receives scant attention, Maggie Smith’s Lady Violet claiming to be totally unaffected, except for her communist maid temporarily despondent. Irish republicanism gets some consideration, as does Thomas (Robert James-Collier), who visits an illicit Jazz Age gathering of all-male dancers.

So the film remains inside the Downton bubble, with as many storylines, upstairs and downstairs, as there are characters. These revolve around a visit from King George V and Queen Mary. It all puts the Crawley family under pressure, which, in effect, is passed to their hard-working servants. Nice as they mainly are, their posh masters still don’t know the price of milk. Plus ça change. . .

The King and Queen send their own staff ahead to take over the house. The royal servants don’t endear themselves to Carson (Jim Carter), who has been reinstated as butler for the occasion. Staff devise hilarious ways of dealing with the intruders. At ground level, old hurts emerge. The Crawley dynasty’s estranged Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) accompanies the Queen — this despite bad feelings by Violet about who will inherit Maud’s estate.

The gentlemen are upper-class twits redeemed by anguished love of wives and sweethearts. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) frets about Downton’s future. She needn’t worry too much. Julian Fellowes’s screenplay presents us with assurance that old values will endure; and, despite the writer’s Roman Catholic convictions, there is no semblance of faith supporting them.

Fellowes was educated in Yorkshire by the Ampleforth College Benedictines, the county where Downton is set. Authentic locations shown or name-checked include Goldsborough, Harewood, and Scarborough. The substitution, therefore, of Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire, for Downton village visually jars in comparison. Likewise, the dialogue is occasionally marred by anachronistic phrases, such as the ironical “Well, that went well.”

Lord Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) asks Violet to pray for good weather. “I’ll put a word in,” she says. Granted a glorious day, Mary believes this proves that God is a monarchist. Perhaps the erosion of religious belief is being expressed, and possibly regretted, in the scene where Grace at dinner is overtaken by a secular discussion. The uttering of “Amen” thus presents a puzzle over whether it is the Almighty or secular matters being endorsed. Nor is there any mention of the house’s presumably monastic foundation before the Dissolution handed it to the Crawleys’ aristocratic forebears.

Downton arose out of Fellowes’s first film, Gosford Park (2001), directed by Robert Altman, whose politics vastly differed from this Tory peer and his fervent belief in the hereditary system. Fellowes is freed this time from any tempering of contrary views. He is intrigued about how people dealt with the “curious universe” of families situated alongside their servants. “Did they retain a sense of self?” he asks.

The film is certain they did, but does subservience distort our very essence? Regardless of — or perhaps because there is no trace of — grinding poverty or class oppression, Downton is a world that ultimately lives in perfect harmony. It is what it is, and, as such, is a delightful concoction.

Free discussion resources available from kovapr.com.

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