From the country that invented the butler, “Downton Abbey” is a period-piece drama depicting the extravagant lives of the post-Edwardian British aristocracy and their cheerfully devoted servants. Based on the PBS Masterpiece Theater series (and UK’s iTV), this audience knows how to hold their pinky fingers while enjoying a spot of tea.
Created and written by Julian Fellowes, the story centers on the fictitious Crawley family and their massive estate in the English countryside in the early 20th century. It’s not that the manor, the cast or the production are so spectacular, it’s that they are so magnificent, as in colossal. On that note, the movie begins with a grand introduction from drone shots over the estate to glorious pageantry and elegant attire.
Fans now view the cast as family. Each is wonderfully reintroduced and receives a fair share of the spotlight. The plot centers on the King and Queen visiting the Crawleys at Downton Abbey. Fellowes is a master at creating an abundant display of fascinating subplots, delicious banter and soapy gossip, which are the reasons we watch. The subplots eventually tie into each other and brilliantly help complete the overall storyline.
Those who have not seen the TV series might still enjoy the spectacle, but the entire show works in spite of, or because of, the vast collection of characters requiring a flow chart to fully grasp. Over the years, fans have gotten to know these people, love them and cheer for them. Therefore, this movie is a reunion for devotees in a way the Avengers has been to Marvel Comics fan-boys. And that’s where that similarity ends.
This is a jolly-good reunion, but as in every episode, there is yet another “sticky-wicket.”
The Crawley’s and the Abbey are the center of their region, but as Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) explains about the visit, “He’s the King of England and there’s only one of him in the world!” We then learn the levels of arrogance even apply to the hired help, “I’m not the butler, I am the King’s page of the back stairs!” Of course, you are.
Eighty-four-year old Dame Maggie Smith was the last to sign on to the cast, but her role as the Dowager Countess Violet again steals each scene with zingers, mostly directed at Baroness Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton), “I never argue, I explain.” Then, “Will you have enough cliché’s to get you through the visit?” Isobel retorts, “If not, I’ll come to you.”
Integrated into the storyline are relatable cultural issues of the day, such as the rapidly changing social hierarchy, a woman’s place, homosexuality, economic gap between rich and poor, Irish-English politics, etc. The more things change, the more they stay the same. These issues are treated seriously, but never preachy and not the gist of the plot.
One of the unexplained attractions of this show is how we identify as easily with the fabulously wealthy Crawlies as we do with the lowest of the hired help. We applaud Tom Branson (Allen Leech) for his rise from chauffer to his elite status. In this latest episode, we do the same for the maid Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton).
The series began in 1912, but we watched the family evolve and change with the times. Now Lady Edith’s husband Bertie explains, “It’s 1927, we’re modern folk.” Bloody good. Director Michael Engler (“Sex and the City”), a clever fellow, takes us “about as far as we can go,” but we’re anxious to visit again with the lovely folks of Downton.
“Downton Abbey” is 122 minutes and rated PG for thematic elements, suggestive material and language. At Downton, rich and poor get along so swimmingly. This is a glowing depiction of life that most likely never was. But, that doesn’t matter. This Edwardian eye candy is sweet and delicious, even if not so good for your teeth.
The lavish production is as prim, proper and extravagant as expected. The series tied up so many loose ends and this movie opened up some new ones; maybe enough for a cheeky sequel. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) may have said it best. “The day has dawned and the weather proves conclusively that God is a monarchist.” Quite right.
Ron’s Rating: B+ Leigh’s Rating: A-