PBS’s surprise-hit British import Downton Abbey is a curious case of a show that didn’t merely decline in quality, but actually became its own antithesis.
Downton began as a portrait of an old-world class structure struggling to maintain tradition in the face of encroaching modernity. In the early seasons, set in the years before and after World War I, head of the house Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) makes the controversial choice to welcome a distant relative, the class-averse Hunky Cousin Matthew (Dan Stevens), as the inheritor of the estate. Hunky Matthew winds up taking a shine to Lord Grantham’s rebellious, sexually liberated daughter, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), and the young couple seem poised to usher Downton into the future.
A few seasons later, Hunky Matthew is killed off in a car accident (Stevens was dissatisfied with, among other things, his character’s improbable recovery from paralysis), and Downton increasingly lapsed into abject fetishism of the very institutions it once gently cajoled.
Now comes the big-screen return to Downton, which devolves into an unapologetically nostalgic look back at a nostalgic look back. The Downton Abbey movie doesn’t revert to the slightly introspective tone of the early years. Rather, it downshifts into its default mode: a stately bukkake of moribund Anglophilia.
The opening sequence is a smart callback to the debut episode, tracing the progress of a letter along its way to Downton. Rather than deliver tragic news, however, this one heralds good tidings: The king and queen of England are coming to stay for a royal visit.
Both the upstairs and the downstairs—the key dichotomy of creator Julian Fellowes’ TV show—are in a tizzy. Upstairs, series MVP the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) plots a regal argument to further her son’s position, while downstairs the house servants quarrel with the staff of the palace over who will have the honor of fetching hors d’oeuvres for the regency.
Downton has rarely thrived when it attempts high-stakes drama (see also: Anna’s rape in season four), and it speaks to the series’ misplaced priorities that the question of who gets to cook the king and queen’s dinner occupies far more screen time than an attempted assassination. That the crux of the film is the underclass regarding serving royalty to be, as one character puts it, “the peak of my life,” is all but impossible to understand for an American who finds the entire notion of kings preposterous.
Veteran TV director Michael Engler makes no pretense: He shoots this thing exactly in the style of the show, with little embellishment for the cinema. This is a super-sized, fans-only episode. The big screen does allow the viewer to enjoy the rich details of the Downton setting; even at its worst, the show was always good drawing-room decor porn. And this is most certainly Downton Abbey at its worst, or at least its most dimly indulgent.
If the Dowager Countess had a haughty American counterpart, she might say: The Downton Abbey movie leaves one wishing for another film to cleanse one’s palate. Something French, preferably with a focus on guillotines.
Director: Michael Engler
Theater: Area theaters, now playing