Downton Abbey (2019)
Director: Michael Engler
Screenwriter: Julian Fellowes
Starring: Hugh Bonneville, Jim Carter, Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Penelope Wilton.
I would like to begin this review by stating that I am a huge fan of ‘Downton Abbey’. Therefore, I was both excited and nervous when it was announced that there was going to be a ‘Downton Abbey’ film. How could a movie version of a series with so many well wrapped-up character arcs possibly exist? It seems that I need not have worried, for Downton Abbey (2019) is not really a film, it’s not even an extended episode of the show, it’s a 2 hour version of one of those Text Santa sketches (ITV’s attempt at a comic relief style fundraiser); a pointless visit to the famous old big house that lacked the heart of the original and is so two dimensional it becomes a parody of its former self.
The opening is positively cinematic in all of the traditional, trope-driven ways; the director keen to establish a reason (at least visually) for the film to be on the big screen – we see a letter being written from Buckingham Palace, which travels on the Hogwarts express up to Yorkshire. We return to Thirsk, and anticipation rises as we travel up the path to the house. The theme music, ‘Did I Make the Most of Loving You’, plays. We see the letter being passed through the house, finally revealing what everyone already knows: the King and Queen are coming to stay.
This will not be good for the Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Tom (Allen Leech) economy drive. Que the movie’s first forced laugh. Wink wink.
Thus begins the ‘plot’ of the movie: getting Downton ready for the visit. This means that the characters need to make sure everything is as it should be, which is needlessly driven home by a voiceover explaining that everything needs cleaning while a filler montage of servants cleaning is splurged onto the screen. The Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonnevillie) is noticeably upset that servants are in his living space, and thus the entire conflict is established.
This is almost like a “getting the old team back together for one last adventure” movie, something which dictates that a lot of the already completed character arcs are broken to create points of interest, this questionable writing choice emphasised by Carson (Jim Carter) returning to the role of Butler, (the illness that was keeping him away from Downton, no longer an issue). A bit like a Take That reunion tour but without Gary, something is missing.
Although the vast majority of the central cast were involved (Lily James and Samantha Bond were notably absent, though their presences weren’t particularly missed), the movie was lacking something. The major issue was that Downton Abbey wasn’t another Downton story, but more a trip to Downton; it was a passing visit to a place by a group of visitor who couldn’t see the characters as anything more than their 2-dimensional stereotypes, with the characters being written as such. If you were to make the trip to Downton, you might judge the characters only by their most minimal attributes, and unfortunately the film took this to heart by presenting each of them with just as much of a distinct lack of depth.
In terms of entertainment value, it felt like the characterisation and writing shortcuts also played against the enjoyment of the jokes, with most of them either being way too slapstick (not very Downton at all) or being played with a knowing wink and a nod. Maggie Smith, for example, as Dowager Countess of Grantham, was of course a gem and the best part of the movie, but she was used far too much for a quick laugh or moment of levity that her character came close to losing the appeal she so rightly earned throughout the series. The Comic Relief element is cemented by Mark Addy’s ‘cameo’ as the shopkeeper; he felt extremely out of place like the producers were shouting at the screen “look, look! We got that guy from ‘Game of Thrones’ and The Full Monty to cameo in our movie!”
Perhaps most disappointingly, most of the major plot points were obvious and rushed, and the ‘twists’ were so cliche that you could see them coming from a mile away. As such, it’s almost impossible to spoil this film, and any of the interest that might have been garnered from the trailer is precisely the amount of intrigue the final movie offers; there are no major narrative twists or turns that the trailer doesn’t spoil. The film also seemed to go against some of the most important aspects of ‘Downton Abbey’ as a show, with social issues being relegated to side thoughts uttered by minor characters and downplayed for laughs, rather than central to the narrative and each character’s motivations; and this wasn’t because it didn’t have the time, it was because of poor creative decision making. Fellowes tried so hard to fit in the role of the ruling classes, socialism, nationalism, feminism and homosexuality all in one 2 hour slot; their mentions being so brief and unimportant to anything in the narrative that they were clearly just there to tick boxes.
Conclusively, the film lacked the spirit of the TV show. It felt like it was about the spectacle and not the heart, which is ironic as Anna Bates tried to convince Mary that Downton was the heart of the county. This movie was an unnecessary addition to the canon, and if anything it removes some of the canon’s most important and socially conscious moments of all relevance. In fact, the only redeeming quality of the whole movie is Barrow (Robert James-Collier) finally being given some hope; but it’s still not enough to save it.
This is not a film, but a cash in.
As Daisy (Sophie McShera) says in the film, “I don’t know why I bothered”.