Synopsis: An English castle and the people who live and work there.
If you’re a fan of the Julian Fellowes-created series (six seasons from 2011-16) “Downton Abbey” you’ll know that it follows the aristocratic Crawley family and their staff at the titular estate from 1912 – 1926. They live through (well, most of them) WWI, influenza and the Jazz Age. The Earl of Grantham and his mum are quite stuffy, and the American-born wife endeavors to hew to English customs. Their three adult daughters are ever so patrician, but each has her own way of stepping outside of their social confines. And the staff? Some take pride in working on such a fine estate, while others resent the privilege of the Crawleys.
If you’re unfamiliar with Downton lore, and all you have to go by is the trailer, you might think it’s a gothic horror tale. The uninitiated might infer that the story revolves around the mighty castle which has stood for centuries as testament to England’s glory. Perhaps the castle makes mischief (or worse) when displeased with the Crawleys or their staff. Suppose the earl gets tipsy and sloshes sherry about or the servants let dust gather? Well, that’s not paying the proper respect, is it? A fall down the stairs or a ghost haunting tea time might be in order. And woe be to those who do not pay proper tribute to the castle! Pagan rituals including sacrifices and great bonfires must be observed lest the castle and even the grounds drive them all mad.
But, no this is regular period drama stuff with quotidian woes and joys played out with the folks at the castle. The action in Downton Abbey picks up in 1927 with an announcement that sets the whole household atwitter: King George V and Queen Mary will be visiting Yorkshire and overnighting at Downton before attending a ball the next night at another estate.
As usual Lord Grantham stands around being useless while his wife smiles indulgently at him. It falls to oldest daughter Mary to pull the event together. Of course. True to character, she fusses and overreacts. Why hasn’t the silver for dinner been polished yet? Wherever is Carson when you need him? However will I manage the estate in such trying times?
Sisterly foil Edith arrives with aristo husband and her little girl, Marigold. Fans will remember that a pregnant Edith was left preemptively widowed when her publisher boyfriend was killed while trying to get a divorce in Germany. Quel scandale! She has the baby, then sort of adopts her out to Downton farming tenants, gets lots of money from the baby daddy’s will and, thank you very much, takes back little Marigold. Her papa, the Earl, is dumbly flummoxed, but his wife says it’s all well and good. New times indeed.
Oh, yes, where was I? The sisters! Fortunately after decades of froideur and competition between the sisters, they have settled into a companionability. Either because Mary is kinder and more mature or possibly because Mary has what she wants: a dashing husband and a chic wardrobe with Art Deco flourishes. Well, one shouldn’t be catty. After all, Mary’s first husband, a cousin of some sort, was killed in an auto accident right after she gave birth to an heir. I don’t know if her current husband is posh, but he’s not a cousin. So, progress.
Before long, the King and Queen arrive at Downton and everyone is ready to put on a stately show for them. But then, lo and behold, the royal maids and butlers arrive and commence slagging off the Downton staff. And the very snooty royal butler tells them to Slag Off, they’ll be attending the King and Queen as usual. Bloody hell! The staff is ready to mutiny but Carson tells them he’ll have no “disloyal tomfoolery.” They organize some righteous tomfoolery anyway. Get ready for some Yorkshire-style hospitality.
While the series had whole seasons to build story arcs, Fellowes doubles up on the skulduggery, scheming and romancing to fill the stand alone feature. Someone is in possession of a pistol, a member of the royal staff makes eyes at reformed bastard butler Thomas, the obsequious Molesley contrives to make a complete fool of himself, Lady Edith’s gown hasn’t arrived and Sybil’s widower, Tom is stirred by the arrival of Lucy, the attractive companion to Mrs. Bagshawe, a lady-in-waiting to the Queen
It’s hard to imagine how anyone could compare to the youngest Crawley daughter, the late great Sybil who — sob – died in childbirth. A sweeter iconoclast there never was, whether she was running off to marry the Irish chauffeur (for fu*k’s sake!) or modeling fashion-forward harem pants to the family. I was especially suspicious because this new love interest is played by the same actress (Tuppence Middleton) who was a thoroughly wicked trollop in “War and Peace.” But I wanted to give her a chance, and she seemed quite attentive to her patroness, Lady Bagshawe, who happens to be some sort of cousin (all the aristos are related) to the Dowager Countess, Violet, matriarch of the Crawley family.
All the relations can be confusing, but all you have to know in this case is that the visiting cousin is played by Imelda Staunton — Dolores Umbridge, High Inquisitor at Hogwarts– while the Downton Abbey cousin is the redoubtable Maggie Smith — Prof. Minerva McGonagall of Hogwarts. Brilliant; a Harry Potter reunion! Umbridge and McGonagall have been estranged for years after an aristo argument and sparks fly when they meet again. I was gleefully expecting them to get into a wand fight. I mean anything can happen in that ancient castle…
In closing, the film does well by the castle, which looks quite majestic in the swooping drone footage. In fact, Movie Loon gives top marks to Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England for really channeling the all-important role of Downton Abbey. Some of its finest work since its patriotic turn in the series as a convalescent hospital in WWI.
Downton fans won’t be disappointed in this big screen venture and Downton novices can still enjoy Maggie Smith’s spirited Dowager Countess. If you need a Downton primer click here.
Movie Loon’s Movie Review Shortcut:
Cut to the Chase: The fine cast slips easily back into character, with Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary), Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith), Robert James-Collier (Thomas Barrow) and Allen Leech (Tom Branson) garnering plenty of screen time. The movie doesn’t reach the dramatic heights of its finest episodes, but the lighter touch for the movie works well.
Humor Highlight: Maggie Smith’s character’s zingers, of course!
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