At a time when theaters are filled with world-ending stakes, here’s a film where the greatest drama is how the steak is prepared. Yes, “Downton Abbey” is back. The PBS show, which gave viewers charming comfort amidst their busy lives, has been repackaged for the big screen. But it’s a present that’s been stuffed, in a package that can’t fit six seasons worth of characters. It’s 1927. King George V and Queen Mary are blessing the Crawley family with their presence. Will they fancy the estate? Will they drool over the food? It’s the sort of obstacle that would jump off the screen in a TV episode, or off the page in a Jane Austen novel, but makes for a boring hour-and-a-half at the movies.
When the show came to its fitting conclusion in 2015, it was proof that all good things must end. All the characters took their bow and went on living their lives in the English countryside. Still, 2019 has proven that all good things must be remade for money. Why else would this be made? Don’t let that distract you from the fact that Perfect Pictures has crafted a perfect world. The period details are a feast for the eyes, while the sound design stirs the soul. Sunbeams burst through the castle walls, the birds chirp, and the grass always looks as if it were cut that same morning. It’s one of the reasons we fell for the show in the first place.
‘Downton’ has always been about the characters, though. And those characters all get moments to shine. With the King coming over for a luxurious slumber party, the place is busier than usual. No one’s busier than the downstairs staff. Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicole) is still the queen of the kitchen. Politely ordering her nervous staff around, she can’t risk any mistakes. Joining her is Daisy (Sophie McSheara); head housekeeper Mrs. Carson (Phyllis Logan); and Thomas Barrow (Rob James Collier), the new butler who mysteriously stopped being a douche in the last season. When Barrow can’t handle the heat, Carson (the previous butler, played by Jim Carter) is called back into the line of duty. Only the best will do for the King!
The downstairs of Downton cooks up most of the life in an otherwise lifeless affair. That doesn’t mean the royalties upstairs aren’t quaking in their polished boots. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), the heir apparent, is co-running the palace with her widowed brother-in-law Tom Branson (Allen Leech). Mary is way ahead of her time–a woman running the household decades before anyone thought that acceptable. That means parents Robert (Hugh Bonneville) and Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) are given nothing to do but worry in reaction shots. Then there’s the Countess –a woman completely of her time. As played by Maggie Smith, the Countess who stole the show steals the movie. Her cool aristocracy and quick wit leave all others shriveling in her shadow. That goes for the Queens’ lady-in-waiting (Imelda Staunton), who plans to leave her fortune to her maid. The Countess disapproves, of course.
There are too many characters to name them all here, just as there are too many characters to develop in 90 minutes. Director Michael Engler and writer Julian Fellowes have done extensive work on the episodes. Yet they don’t have much experience in movies, and it shows in their plodding pace and choppy structure. Everyone has more secrets than a Bob Ross painting. The butler is gay in a time when it was illegal. The maid in question is more than a maid. The King’s men have barged in and taken over the staff’s duties; not before the staff can reveal some tricks up their sleeves. Also, it wouldn’t be Downton without a romance or two. There are enough subplots to fill every room in the estate, but none of these stories are fleshed out.
Engler has made a movie only fans of the show will understand. And, not coincidentally, a movie only fans will like. Will you be glad to see your old friends again? Probably. Will those who haven’t seen the show be scratching their heads? Definitely. By trying to fit in everyone who ever appeared in an episode, characters come and go without any backstory whatsoever (some minor characters aren’t even named!). What’s more, by glossing over the important stuff–how those who polish the spoon make way for those with the silver spoon– ‘Downton’ redux only has time for sentimental goodbyes. Isn’t that what season finales are for?
It isn’t a spoiler to say that the staff downstairs does indeed make the steak properly. It’s the movie itself that’s less tasteful. [C-]