Downton Abbey

DOWNTON ABBEY. Starring: Hugh Bonneville, Jim Carter, Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Penelope Wilton, Simon Jones, and Geraldine James Directed by Michael Engler. Rated PG (Mild themes). 122 min.

This British high-society, period drama is a continuation of the television series of the same name created by Julian Fellowes, who has co-produced the movie.  Most of the original cast has returned to do the movie. The film is set in the autumn of 1927, shortly after the time when the TV series ended, and focuses on a royal visit to Downton Abbey by King George V and Queen Mary. It is the continuing story of the wealthy, aristocratic Crawley family - fictional owners of a large Yorkshire estate in the English countryside in the early twentieth century.

The television series addressed the period 1912-1926, and has naturally evolved into the movie in time, place, and character. The series gained 15 Emmy Awards in its six year run, and “Downton Abbey” was the most nominated non-US show in the history of the Emmy awards; it  stands with “Brideshead Revisited” as the most successful British costume-television drama of all time.

This movie shows definite, recognisable, continuing links with the television series that preceded it, in direction, acting, and production. Without much attempt at all to familiarise the viewer about the past, “Downton Abbey” just continues on to pick up in detail the lives of the Crawley family, the hereditary Earls of Grantham, and their domestic servants.

The historic Abbey is under the influence of Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith), the Dowager Countess of Grantham - the mistress of the acerbic aside - and is preparing for the arrival of King George (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James). Old rivalries are just as evident, and some are accentuated. The estate is thrown into anxious disarray by the Royal couple’s impending arrival. Following the Great Depression and the events of World War I, the family asks retired head butler Carson (Jim Carter) to return to Downton Abbey to help it cope. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), in particular, is feeling the pressure of her administrative responsibilities.

The impact of events is evident in many ways, and there are copious numbers of sub-plots. The film’s focus is most obviously on the British social hierarchy, and the upper class, in particular. The aspirations of the upper-class are highlighted especially by the impending Royal visit, and the Royals bring their own staff, who pull rank - motivating the Downton staff to plot a take-over.

The Crawley family lives royally, and it is being visited by actual British Royalty. In the space of two hours there is not a lot of time for viewers to explore too many major events, such as deaths, sexual liaisons between the lower, middle and upper classes, or the going-ons of cash-strapped  aristocrats which have affected Downton Abbey’s past. Major happenings, such as the sinking of the Titanic, and World War I, are much better suited to episodic TV programming than to a single follow-up movie like this one. But there is nevertheless time in the movie for a few unexpected liaisons, gender-identity confusions, and social rivalries that threaten the Crawley family’s feelings of social importance, and self-worth. An attempted assassination is also there in the heady mix.

In preparing for the Royal visit, and coping with class-induced emotional trauma, the film gives  enormous attention to detail, especially in relation to costume design. It demonstrates an incredible level of crafting from under-garments to outer-garments, down to shoes, and every kind of accessory. Scenic displays of the inside and outside of the Abbey are also abundantly evident.

In direction, set design, acting and and costuming, the film vibrantly projects the British obsession with the upper class. The film is a little like a richly layered ice-cream cake, waiting for eventual  melt-down. In format and style, the movie asks viewers to begin to contemplate the decline of the British aristocracy, but tension still plays out between the ruling and the serving classes. Devotees of the original TV series will not be disappointed with this movie, but the film is of a nature that it is unlikely there is ever going to be a sequel. This one, however, is a well-dressed visual delight.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Universal Pictures International

Released September 12, 2019

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