Downton Abbey (2019)

MICHAEL ENGLER

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5/USA/, 2019, , Screenplay by , based on his characters.  Cinematography by Produced by Julian Fellowes, , Music by Production Design by Costume Design by Film Editing by .

The runaway success of Julian Fellowes’ upstairs-downstairs television series follows its small-screen finale with a big-screen sequel, returning us to the titular country manor whose inhabitants struggle to survive the changes that are rocking Britain in the early half of the twentieth century. Eldest sister Lady Mary (, straight-backed and stiff-lipped as always) is poised to become the boss of the grand estate but has no idea if it’s all worth keeping given that the years following the first World War have seen the lives of her set diminish in size and expenditure. Her younger, self-doubting sister Edith () is adjusting to life as a marchioness when she finds out from her husband that he is soon to be absent on a royal assignment during a very important part of their lives. Their quibbles are nothing compared with the incredible news that ’s Earl of Grantham receives by post that the King and Queen of England will be touring through their part of the country and plan to spend an evening at Downton before a very fancy ball. For the staff below stairs this means great excitement and massive preparations, for those above it means the reigniting of a family drama: the Queen’s lady in waiting (Imelda Staunton) is a relative of the Earl, whose spitfire of a mother (Maggie Smith, volleying her barbs with perfection as always) is determined to get to the bottom of the reason that her son has been cut out of his cousin’s will. The days preceding the much-anticipated event start to look sour for Downton’s staff when the royal housekeeper, cook and butler arrive and treat the employees of what they consider an insignificant country house like strangers in their own workplace, but thankfully our feisty friends never take an insult lying down and are always at the ready to defend the Abbey’s honour. It would be very hard to make a bad movie out of a series that was already blessed with expert actors, a stunning ease with the plush aesthetics of the era and a very smart writer at its helm; it may be said that it’s only the first and second seasons of the show that were essential and the rest was just capitalizing on its popularity, but the show remained very enjoyable until its very last episode and the movie provides the same pleasant diversion. Maintaining the interlocking jigsaw puzzle of plots in both of the worlds that made this microcosm so bewitching means that Fellowes places a number of smaller arcs within the overriding Royal Visit narrative, including an assassination attempt, a love plot for the perpetually lonely Thomas Barrow () and a mystery involving petty thievery around the house. The disappointment is that it’s hard to have the same level of intimacy with individual characters in one feature film that you could cover in eight episodes a season, the majority of plots that focus on specific people take place among the toffs and most of them are dull, while the rambunctious energy of the rich array of servants, maids, cooks and housekeepers is mushed into one silly heist adventure that ignores them as separate entities except for Daisy’s () dull love affair and Molesley () being turned, inexplicably, into a court jester. The feeling of the human tapestry that brought this series such popularity is dampened here but not extinguished, the result is satisfying (and by the time we get to Smith’s final scene, more than a little poignant). The additions to the cast are hit and miss, barely registers as a mysterious friend who is checking up on the upwardly mobile Tom Branson (), Staunton looks bored and her storyline offers no surprises, but is marvelous as Queen Alexandra, as always bringing intelligent elegance to the screen, and puts enough sensitivity into her portrayal of Princess Mary to keep it from being Poor Little Rich Girl pandering.

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