$13.50 ticket on the Tedflix scale of $0 to $15
Nancy Ramsey, one of your critic’s friends and a very accomplished writer and editor, wrote a feature about 35 or 40 years ago about screwball comedies as an entertainment antidote to the Great Depression. It stuck in your critic’s mind.
“Downton Abbey,” the movie version, is just such a picture for the era of economic uncertainty and potential war in hotspots such as the Persian Gulf. Pic has a built-in audience in English-speaking markets, especially the US, where the eponymous TV series was a PBS hit for several years.
Unlike many big screen spinoffs of TV series (“The Wild Wild West” comes to mind) “Downton” sticks very closely to the on-air series. TV creator Julian Fellowes wrote the screenplay, and nearly the entire TV cast reprise their roles in the film. Like the series, pic, like “Seinfeld,” weaves a number of subplots beneath the main storyline: The visit of King George V and Queen Mary to Downton Abbey, the Crawley family’s estate in Yorkshire. Set in 1927, the period piece uses the same pristine castle as the TV series as backdrop.
The popularity of “Downton” cannot be underestimated. The debut on Thursday, 19 September, benefited from a highly rated one-hour prime-time special on NBC, not PBS, and, according to ComScore attracted $2.1 million on opening night, 40% more than Brad Pitt’s space odyssey, “Ad Astra.”
It seems that Julian Fellowes may have an annuity here, but more on that later.
Fans of the TV series know that the high-class soap opera centers on class differences early in 20th Century England. Think of erstwhile PBS hit “Upstairs Downstairs.” While the TV series focused in depth on class consciousness within the downstairs staff (a heck of a pecking order presided over by butler Carson [Jim Carter] who seems to have lost the hand tremor that sent him into retirement in the series’ final season) it manages, albeit in a predictable way, to put all characters into social context without disrupting the plot.
Action starts with a letter delivered to Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) from Buckingham Palace to inform him that the King and Queen will stay at Downton as part of their national tour. This sets both family and staff into overdrive. Carson is called out of retirement (setting off a small tiff with replacement Barrow [Robert James-Collier] who is later featured in a mini-subplot about gays in the era of the buggery laws), and the royal staff arrive to take over the household in advance of Their Majesties’ visit.
Main plotline here is worthy of “I Love Lucy.” The royal staff is so bloody arrogant that the Downton staff sabotage them with a Mickey Finn for the chef (played over-the-top by Philippe Spall) and a bogus telegram ordering them all to return to London. The royal dinner, a huge success, is prepared by Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), Downton’s cook, a fact which Mr. Molesly (Kevin Doyle) lets slip unasked to the King (Simon Jones).
Pic ties up a number of TV series’ subplots, which were untied especially for the movie. This creates pic’s only problem: While sequels have been rumored, there is precious little tension at the end of “Downton Abbey,” the movie, to propel one or more save for the hint dropped in the final reel by Lady Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith as Downton’s Dowager) to Downton heiress Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), that she has not long to live. If the Lady Violet character is in character a few twists and turns could be made from it in a sequel. Otherwise, save for the thought expressed by Lady Mary that Downton might be sold and the country aristocratic way of life abandoned in their lifetimes, there is not much to go on except to move the family forward through two decades of the world’s most turbulent history.
“Downton Abbey” benefits from excellent lensing (Ben Smithard), economical cutting (Mark Day), and really good sound recording (from a crew too long to list, sorry). Music by John Lunn will disappoint no fan of the TV series. Pic was shot not in the conventional 16:9 ratio but in widescreen 2.39:1. Auds may want to check specs of the cinema where they see it. Helmer Michael Engler, who directed the 2014-15 season of the TV series, has a firm hand at the throttle, and pic belies its 122 minute run-time. Parents need not fear children squirming in their seats for the PG-rated feature, especially due to pic’s fast pace and its few adult themes being dealt with discreetly. Reliable budget info is difficult to come by, but lavish sets (Donal Woods) and costumes (Anna Mary Scott Robbins) and enormous cast indicate that it was not small. However, your critic expects it to make sufficient profit for at least one or two more features to be hatched.
“Downton Abbey” is billed as a drama. Your critic thinks comedy, or at least dramedy, would better describe it.