Movie Review – Downton Abbey (2019)
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
The British series, which began in 2010, is one of the most highly-acclaimed series that has ever been made. It has won numerous Emmy Awards and has been nominated for even more. It’s set in England during the first decade of the 20th century and into the early 1920’s. It’s centered on a wealthy family known as the Crawley family and their domestic servants. The name of the estate where the Crawley family lives is called Downton Abbey. It’s a huge estate, a large mansion, almost resembling a small castle that requires servants to take care of it and the Crawley family. There are many films that have been adaptations of television shows. A lot, if not most of them, are reboots or re-introductions to the original premise of the show. It’s only a select few where the film is basically a continuation of wherever the TV show ended. It’s rare that film adaptations are just sequels or like an additional episode but done on the big screen.
The latter type of adaptation is usually for those who are fans of the TV show and can be alienating or disconcerting for those who aren’t fans. I wasn’t a fan and in fact I never watched a single episode, so I’m a newbie to this property. As a result, there is a lot about the characters and their histories, as established in the TV series, that I didn’t know and didn’t influence my thoughts about the series. Actually, I knew nothing about the characters, including their names. With there being so many characters, I was initially lost in the sea of people moving about the estate. Written by Julian Fellowes, the script is sharp enough in terms of its dialogue to keep things engaging enough, as well as having their positions be clear visually that it’s not impossible to pick up who they are, at least on a superficial level.
Directed by Michael Engler, the pacing and the flow are such that the whole thing is never boring. The film felt like it kept moving. It had a momentum that was steady and even snappy. It never lingered on any scene or instance for too long. It pulls the audience along and maintains a liveliness. Sometimes, it was too lively, which speaks to the tone of this film. Having not watched the series, I can’t say if the tone is a total match. I would assume yes, given that Engler was an Emmy-nominated director for the series, but what seems like it’s going to be straight drama comes across as more of a comedy.
This would put this film in line with Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001), a film also written by Fellowes. That film was actually the inspiration for Fellowes to create the Downton Abbey series. The 2001, Oscar-winning film was more of a stand-alone property that didn’t require one having prior knowledge of anything. It was also held together more strongly because it had a murder-mystery plot that also propelled the narrative. This film isn’t held together as strongly. There is a plot that rather propels things, but there are so many sub-plots that divert from the main story. Usually sub-plots help to buttress the main story or reinforce themes. That’s not really the case here. The sub-plots really were distractions that provided interesting bits for the characters to do. Yet, it all never really added up to anything. Those sub-plots also never felt like they had much weight. There were no stakes or consequences that allowed for any emotional depth either.
The main story is simply that the King and Queen of England, specifically King George V and his wife Queen Mary of Teck, decide to visit Downton Abbey and stay overnight. The Crawley family is obviously concerned with preparing the estate for the royalty. They want to make a good impression for the King and Queen. What’s quickly learned is that the royals have their own staff who is arriving in advance to do the preparations themselves. The Crawley family don’t care, but their servants are upset because the Downton servants want to be the ones to serve and attend to the King and Queen. The Downton servants, though, don’t like that they’re basically being pushed aside. They then take steps to stage a minor coup d’état where they subvert the royalty’s staff who snobbishly try to take over.
The question is why. It seems like mostly it’s a sense of pride, but stepping aside so that the royalty’s staff can take over doesn’t seem like it would be the worst thing in the world. When the Downton servants stage their coup, the idea is not to let the royals even know what they did. It’s only by accident that the royals find out, so the servants weren’t doing it for the glory. I suppose they simply want to be closer in proximity to the royals, regardless of if those royals realize it, but that’s ultimately a lame motivation. Royalty is the highest celebrity in the country in this time period, so it’s understandable. A scene in the film tries to underscore the bragging rights that people get from even tangential connections to the royals, but that scene is played as such a pathetic thing that it doesn’t justify the coup. Maybe having proprietary feelings over the estate and its facilities is what the servants are fighting for because the royalty’s staff makes them feel incompetent or unnecessary, which becomes motive for them to prove the royalty’s staff wrong. The competition or rivalry between the servants and the royalty’s staff makes for good humor, but there’s simply no substance to it.
Within this, there are about a half-dozen or so sub-plots. There are plots involving the Crawley family themselves and plots involving the servants. That is to say there are plots involving the wealthy and plots involving the working-class respectively. The plots for either group don’t hold much weight or have much substance. Yet, all the stuff involving the wealthy feels the most superfluous. The plots involving the wealthy have potential, but those plots flutter away. One of those plots has an Irish servant who married into the Crawley family but who is now widowed, named Tom Branson, played by Allen Leech, trying to foil an assassination of a royal. This plot takes the film into being a thriller, a tone that comes out of nowhere and then quickly evaporates into nowhere. The whole thing just feels so poorly constructed unless there’s a lot that was left on the cutting room floor.
The sub-plots involving the working-class aka the servants are slightly more interesting, but they flutter about the narrative, never really taking hold emotionally or with much depth here. One is a potential love triangle. Sophie McShera plays Daisy, a maid who mainly works in the kitchen. She’s engaged to a footman named Andy Parker, played by Michael C. Fox. When a tall, handsome plumber named Tony Sellick, played by James Cartwright, arrives to fix the machine that provides the hot water, Andy becomes so jealous that he bashes the hot water machine after it gets fixed. Besides Andy committing the act, nothing comes of this triangle. It’s so inconsequential that it seems pointless that this film spent time on it at all.
The final sub-plot worth mentioning that feels inconsequential is one involving Thomas Barrow, played by Rob James-Collier. Thomas starts out as the butler for Downton Abbey. He’s the one in charge of all the servants and is responsible for the maintenance of the entire house. He’s demoted in the beginning because the Crawleys inexplicably lose confidence in him in the run-up to the royals’ arrival. Thomas is taken to an underground gay club, as it was revealed that the former footman is secretly homosexual. The police raid that club and arrest everyone, including Thomas. However, his arrest doesn’t end up affecting his job at Downton. The Crawley family don’t even find out. It’s great that there is this kind of representation, depicting the government-sanctioned homophobia in the country at the time, but like with the other sub-plots, it flutters away and ultimately has no consequence in the narrative. Thomas does get a hot kiss with one of the royalty’s staff, Richard Ellis, played by Max Brown, but it’s questionable if that was enough to justify this story line.
Rated PG for theme, some suggestive material and language.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 2 mins.