Thursday, September 19, 2019

'Downton Abbey,' a royal serving for fans

The popular series results in a big-screen effort that doesn’t make for a great movie but gives fans their money's worth.

In its final going, Downton Abbey —- the big-screen version of a six-season PBS smash-- began to feel like a six-season feature, at least it did for me. I'm saying the movie felt long. But, and it’s a major "but," Downton Abbey wasn't made for me. I'm a series slacker who only recently caught up with the first season in preparation for seeing the new movie. I owe my wife, an avid Downton enthusiast, for filling me in on the major plot points of ensuing seasons.

So, if you have a severe case of Downtonitis — stop here. Go see the movie. You will happily reacquaint yourself with most of the series’ characters and you’ll be able to indulge in the luxuriance of the fabled estate that imposes itself on the Yorkshire countryside.

If you love period-piece pleasures, Downton Abbey provides the season's most reliable overdose.

As you probably know, Downton Abbey also provides a home for bickering, scheming aristocrats who employ a cadre of bickering, scheming servants — almost all of whom are deeply committed to maintaining the estate and everything for which it stands.

Best not to think too deeply about what that estate stands for, notably class division and political stagnation that even the show’s creator, Julian Fellowes, can't present without showing a few cracks.

On TV, characters married downward or upward. The movie includes an assassination attempt and a bit of talk about British/Irish tensions. Mostly, though, characters ponder whether it's worth sacrificing personal fulfillment on the altar of propriety. Most vote for the propriety of the prevailing order.

Now because the movie is a mere 122 minutes long, not all the characters are given the kind of attention they received during six seasons. For some, it must have taken longer to don their costumes —- corsets for women, starched fronts for men — than to learn their lines.

Still, it can be rewarding simply to immerse in the carefully appointed aristocratic theme park that director Michael Engler and his production team create and, let’s be honest, celebrate. And, to be even fairer, I’ll say that Downton Abbey arrives on the big screen without too many visible signs of strain for having made the transition.

So what’s new about any of this? Well, there’s an episode in which a slightly more agreeable Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier), the gay footman promoted to the post of chief butler, openly and almost disastrously explores his gayness.

A fresh battle over inherited wealth breaks out, allowing cousin Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) and her maid Lucy (Tuppence Middleton) to arrive at Downton. Did I mention that the whole business centers on a visit from the King and Queen (Simon Jones and Geraldine James) that throws the entire Crawley household into a tizzy?

The pending arrival of royalty prompts Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) to bring retired head butler, a.k.a., Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), back to Downton so that he can enforce the standards to which he has dedicated his life.

The royal visit seems more important to the servants than those who dwell upstairs. They help is gravely offended when told that the royal party travels with its own staff and that the services of the locals will not be required or, worse, desired. What? Miss an opportunity to grovel at the feet of monarchs? Disasters don’t get much bigger, do they?

To heighten the snootiness brought by a team of royal servants, a traveling French chef (Philippe Spall) has been added, much to the dismay of down-to-earth Downton chef (Lesley Nicol).

The royal visit also provides a reason to introduce Princess Mary (Kate Phillips), daughter of the King and Queen. She's having marital difficulties and provides a reason for the story to take a brief side trip.

Written by Fellowes, the movie employs a farcical twist to deal with tensions between dueling groups of servants. It might be said that on-screen, Downton Abbey is more reliant on plot twists than on the kind of character issues the series more freely could explore.

I know. You’ve been waiting for me to say something about Maggie Smith. She's onboard of course as the imperious Violet Crawley, self-described as the old lady who frightens everyone, a role that she relishes. Smith fires a fair number of caustic darts and, in this telling, becomes part of a comic duo in which Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton) plays counterpoint by insisting on empathy over insult.

I was a little disappointed that Lady Mary didn’t have more to do, that her sister, Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) has lost some of her edginess, having settled into something approximating happiness and that Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern), the American-born mistress of the manor, had no crucial scenes.

You'll notice that I've omitted some characters but going any further risks turning this review into a scorecard -- if I haven't done that already.

If you have Downtonitis and you’ve read this far, you’ll be happy to know that I’m nearly finished.

Part reunion and part lovefest, Downton Abbey's reliance on the affection its audience brings to the theater struck me as near-total. I'd guess that Fellowes and his cohorts have done nothing that's likely to diminish the devotion of Downton fans. I wonder, though, whether those who've never seen a Downton episode will feel quite so welcome in the Crawley household -- or whether they'll even feel as if they've been invited.

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