In a “Saturday Night Live” skit a few years ago, a representative of the British royal house tells Kate Middleton’s gynecologist that, because of her status, he can’t call her sexual organ by the usual name, “vagina.” For the Duchess of Cambridge, wife of the future king, a more respectable term is needed. One of the suggestions made is “Downton Abbey,” after the eponymous British television series. Besides being a very funny joke, the skit also attested to the immense global popularity of the series, which was broadcast from 2010 to 2015 and satisfied the craving of millions of viewers for distilled class elegance, British style.
It was easy to become addicted to the series, because the many characters, on both the masters’ floor upstairs and the servants’ floor downstairs, were skillfully fashioned, and its plotlines, whose point of departure was the beginning of the 20th century, were developed with fine craftsmanship. Viewers embraced the characters and their stories, the splendor of the estate and the lawns around it – indeed the design of the entire series. And if there was a dull moment, you could always count on Maggie Smith, who played the Dowager Countess of Grantham, to come out with a caustic remark in her inimitable style.
But even a series that won dozens of prizes can’t maintain a uniform level throughout – very few series have succeeded in doing so – and in its final seasons “Downton Abbey” gradually ebbed, and I, along with other devotees, abandoned it. Nevertheless, the creators refused to part with their vision, and four years after the conclusion of the series they decided that it still bore a profit-making potential. Accordingly, they made a movie aimed at providing the fans of the series with a different type of experience and rounding off the television saga of the Crawley family and its servants – unless the film should prove successful enough to warrant a sequel.
The makers of “Downton Abbey” didn’t learn the lesson of the two wretched films that were made on the basis of “Sex and the City” – though the two series are divided by a television ocean: They achieved box office success, but left a bad taste and obliterated the fond memory of the series. The biggest compliment I can pay to the film of “Downton Abbey” is to say that it’s better than the two “Sex and the City” movies. It’s not a disgrace compared to the series, but it doesn’t empower the television version or add anything to it. It’s superfluous.
Almost all the characters we met in the series and who survived also appear in the film, played by the same actors. But this is precisely where the problem begins. A television series can take an episode to focus on a central character and his story and wrap them in subplots, and in the next episode can move on to a different character, with the main narrative from the previous episode continuing in the background. In a film whose primary purpose is to reveal the heft of “Downton Abbey,” multiple characters appear without any of them getting enough screen time to develop and for us to reacquaint ourselves with them.
None of the characters functions as a rounded personality; they are no more than familiar faces, whom we’re supposed to relish seeing again. Even Maggie Smith doesn’t escape this plight. She occasionally makes her snide remarks in her idiosyncratic way, but whereas in the series the quips stemmed from the events occurring around her, in the film the feeling is that they are put in her mouth mechanically. The way her story ends in the saga also seems forced, and above all, needless, like the film itself.
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The skimpy plot, which unfolds in 1927, revolves around an announcement that King George V and Queen Mary (Simon Jones and Geraldine James) are arriving for a stay of one night. The estate gets into a tizzy. The masters maintain traditional British restraint, but the downstairs denizens are thrilled that they will be preparing a festive dinner for the king and queen and will serve them.
Several crises put a damper on the events. The cook and the servants are astonished to discover that the royals don’t trust them and are sending a team of their own to replace them and thus to impose marginalizing idleness on them. With the arrival of the royal staff, the only class war shown in the film develops – between the servants of the estate and the guest team, who lord it over them. The appearance of the king and queen’s staff on the estate adds more and more characters to the film, heightening the feeling of a population explosion on the screen.
A second crisis arises because one of the occupants of the upper floor is Irish, and the film takes place during a peak period of the violent struggle between Britain and Ireland. The affable Irishman (Allen Leech), who was the family’s chauffeur before becoming part of it by marrying one of its daughters, has never hidden his identity and his identification with his native land, giving rise to fears among the family that he will be recruited by the Irish underground to assassinate the king during his visit.
There is also a family crisis, which arises when the Dowager Countess of Grantham, who is the mother of Downton Abbey’s owner, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), learns that the royals will be accompanied on their visit by a new character, whom we have never heard of, but who is her greatest rival: Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton). Even though the Crawleys are her only relatives, and even though she is aware of the economic difficulties involved in maintaining the estate, she is planning to leave all her property to her beloved young maid. The countess intends to take advantage of the visit to try to get the decision changed and to discover its motive – which we, as experienced viewers, are able to figure out long before she does.
The king and queen, whose role in the film is as minor as that of the other characters, are depicted as pleasant and generous. Indeed, even today, with England in the throes of a prolonged crisis and with opposition to the monarchy and its profligacy at the public’s expense not waning, the film of “Downton Abbey” is a paean to royalty and to a past when everyone knew what was what and who was who and where he belonged. It’s an ode to the resilience of British conservatism, with the expectation that its ethos will return to the unhinged British society.
Michael Engler, who directed four episodes of the series in its last two seasons, does no more than functional work here. The central driving force behind “Downton Abbey” is Julian Fellowes, who created and wrote the series and now has written the screenplay for the picture. In 2002, Fellowes won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for “Gosford Park,” which is also set on a British estate and confronts masters and servants. However, with Robert Altman at the helm, that film is directed splendidly and is also suffused with irony and addresses the sins of the British class society pungently. There is none of that in “Downton Abbey,” which is possibly what made the series such a hit. Because of “Gosford Park” and the basis of the “Downton Abbey” series, I have high regard for Fellowes, but the film of “Downton Abbey” has shaken that feeling and suggests that Fellowes would do well to turn to a different project. It won’t be awful if that project also ends up on a British estate, as long as it’s not Downton Abbey. Despite the attempts to engrave it on our consciousness, its time has passed.