Film Review: “Downton Abbey” Is an Entertaining Trifle

Film poster: “Downton Abbey”

Downton Abbey (Michael Engler, 2019) 3 out of 4 stars.

What, one may ask, was I thinking, attending a screening of a film pitched as the final chapter of an episodic series I had never watched? After six seasons of established relationships and character developments, how could someone as late to the party as I was understand anything of the story? These are good questions. I do not know why I thought I might like the film Downton Abbey, which picks up the narrative of the beloved eponymous PBS show, which ran 2010-2015, but I am happy to report that my blind faith was not misplaced. Screenwriter and producer Julian Fellowes – the series showrunner – delivers a script that includes enough hints of backstory, without belaboring every detail, that even a neophyte like me can follow along and enjoy. I can’t speak for how all diehard fans might react, but the one I brought with me to the press screening had a wonderful time, as well, so take that as an endorsement from that side of the aisle, too.

The year is 1927 (Season 1 began in 1912 and Season 6 ended in 1925), and the King and Queen of England are planning a royal visit to Yorkshire, with a one-night stay at Downton Abbey on the itinerary. Predictable mayhem ensues, both among the upstairs aristocrats and downstairs domestics. The plot threads are many, but not overwhelming, centered as they are around the main event.

Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is worried that the new head butler, Thomas Darrow (Robert James-Collier), is not up to the task, convincing her father, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), to bring back the retired Mr. Carson (Jim Carson). Meanwhile, some of the servants, among them Daisy Mason (Sophie McShera), express anti-monarchist, republican sentiments, while the local authorities worry about the same feelings in Lord Grantham’s Irish son-in-law, Tom Branson (Allen Leech).

Elizabeth McGovern and Hugh Bonneville in DOWNTON ABBEY ©Focus Features

And then there’s the elderly matriarch, Grantham’s mother Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith), fuming at the fact that her cousin Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) has plans to disinherit her closest living relative, i.e., Violet’s son. With it’s vibrant mix of class conflict, family strife, witty humor and engaging drama, the film proceeds at a brisk pace, never dragging until the end, when its multiple endings feel like a case of no one wanting to let go.

Despite the sharp writing from Fellowes and solid direction from Michael Engler (The Chaperone), and as much as I took pleasure in the proceedings, there is nothing particularly new or innovative in the treatment of the subject, given such past masterpieces as the long-running 1970s British series Upstairs, Downstairs and Robert Altman’s 2002 film Gosford Park (which Fellowes also wrote, not surprisingly). The film also fails to make a convincing case – beyond the love of fans – for the paean to the eternal glories of the Downton Abbey estate voiced, over and over, by the main protagonists. In a few years, with the rise of fascism and World War II, it will probably be abandoned and then reopen in the 1950s as a provincial museum or, perhaps, a movie set. Like the film about it, it’s respectable, in other words, and lovely to look at, but hardly everlasting.

Joanne Froggatt in DOWNTON ABBEY ©Focus Features

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Associate Editor and film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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