Director: Michael Engler
Writer: Julian Fellowes
Composer: John Lunn
Starring: Maggie Smith, Joanne Froggatt, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Jim Carter
During its six-season run between 2010 and 2015, my Facebook feed seemed to always be awash with praise for this award-winning television show. If my friends didn’t love their weekly dose of entertaining characters squabbling over their social status, then they seemed to at least be enamoured by the show’s glamorous production design and flawless costuming. They rushed home. It was a must-watch. They seemingly couldn’t go to bed without seeing the latest episode.
Considering its wild popularity and critical acclaim, making a feature length movie was a natural progression, despite the gargantuan effort needed to lock in the returning cast. The excitement from fans was palpable, with advanced screenings in Sydney sold out within a day, filling a 700 seat cinema.
And then there are people like me, who didn’t watch the show.
Got nothing against it–I’ve always been curious about the series. Yet when you try to keep up with current film releases, your time spent watching television productions sadly falls by the wayside.
Yet my parents loved the series, were looking forward to the film, and I owed my mom a favor since she was a champ and watched Pokémon Detective Pikachu with me despite knowing absolutely nothing about the franchise.
And so this is how this film reviewer ended up watching a movie based on a TV show that she basically knew nothing about…
Violence/Scary Images: A loaded gun is pointed towards another character, with the intention to kill.
Language/Crude Humor: “Bl**dy” is said once. Homosexual behavior is described as perverted.
Drug/Alcohol References: One character has their tea spiked with sleeping tablets. Alcohol is seen being consumed at social gatherings. There is a dance scene at an underground bar where it seems that some people might be tipsy/intoxicated.
Sexual Content: Some kissing seen between married couples and those that are just starting a gay relationship. There is some talk about society’s attitudes towards homosexuals.
Spiritual Content: There is a brief mention about the need to pray for good weather, and that God has answered their prayers.
Other Negative Content: Theft. There is a strong commitment to maintain social status despite any cruelty that may inflict on people in the lower classes. Entire groups of people are lying and manipulative, justifying their actions because they disagree with traditional orders.
Positive Content: The film promotes a sense of community and belonging, where family is the highest priority.
I thought this would be easier.
I have done this before: seen the resulting spin-off movie without first watching the progenitive television series. It’s how I got into Attack on Titan (yes, and I quickly realized how bad the live adaptation was once I dived into the anime). After all, films are designed to be self-contained narratives, with introductions and conclusions all wrapped up in a roughly two-hour endeavor, not spread across multiple episodes. So there was an assumption that Downton Abbey (2019) would be kind enough in its first act to sprinkle just enough character development and context so that even an ignorant newcomer such as myself would understand.
What I completely underestimated was the amount of culture this show has cultivated over its six seasons. It’s not just limited to the British customs of the early twentieth century. There’s also the history of the characters to factor in, their relationships to each other, their current social standing, along with the wider context of Downton Abbey’s influence on the surrounding fictional township. It’s a steep learning curve.
It opens with a flurry of scenes with little to no expository dialogue. Barely locating each character and seemingly only having a moment to place each face to a name, the movie wastes no time in announcing the big event–Downton Abbey will be graced with a visit from the Royal family! It sends the extensive list of characters all into a tizzy, whilst an entirely new cast associated with the palace begins to move in, blowing the number of speaking roles easily into the fifties.
It’s an oddly structured film thanks to its television origins. The vast number of characters are cordoned off into separate groups, and a subplot is dedicated to each one, which will no doubt please fans as no single person claims the spotlight. Yet while the coming of the King and Queen is the main event–the catalyst for every character’s miniature journey–it doesn’t claim the most screen time.
The plot’s tendrils cover a wide amount of short stories. There are questions over inheritance, Irish loyalties are uncovered, faraway job offers are considered, a jealousy forms, all while an unlikely uprising finds its footing. Some narratives take longer to resolve than others, with some dipping out for far too long whilst another narrative takes the limelight. Ultimately it’s the misadventures in the kitchen that keeps the film’s forward momentum.
Sadly, while they all jostle for space, the movie’s thematic through line is dulled and sometimes lost under the weight of its own characters, with the audience merely tolerating the more tedious stories while they await for the gravitational pull of the more interesting ones to take hold once more. Downton Abbey (2019) contains some highly dramatic moments, though as the film’s pacing is so parcelled out, those larger scenes don’t make the impact that they ought to deliver.
Regardless, the film barrels along until the royal guests of honor arrive, and there’s finally some payoff for all of the cast’s anxiety and anticipation, resulting in a satisfying couple of scenes surrounding the dining table. The characters breathe a sigh of relief, and so do the audience. Nothing more to do… except for the ball.
There’s a ball now!? There’s so much attention given to the preparation of the meal that the formal events that occur afterwards appear as an afterthought.
The film just keeps going!
It’s not your typical three-act structure, where all the new information is learnt in the first part only to be resolved in the last. Instead Downton Abbey (2019) is like an extended two-part episode, where some stories begin and end in the first half, others are limited only to the second, while some span the entire runtime. Two romances are suddenly introduced long past the halfway mark, and in a film setting this drags out the pace, testing the audiences’ patience right when they were expecting things to start winding down.
Suffice to say, it’s a busy, overladen plot with a clouded focal piece. All of the action within the film feels inconsequential, like an episode of The Simpsons where nothing major really impacts the main players of the plot. In many ways Downton Abbey (2019) acts as a light epilogue, benefitting fans that may be wondering what their favorite characters are up to now, without upsetting the show’s satisfying conclusion.
Both my parents lamented over the thought that this production felt like a cash grab, rather than a necessary accompaniment to the television series, speculating that producers might be studying the film’s box office earning to determine whether any further continuation could be profitable. From my uneducated perspective, it did seem that we’ve reached a suitable end point for most of the cast, though there is some room to expand should it be required, in part due to all the new characters created specifically for the movie.
Though one can only wonder if it’s even feasibly possible for Downton Abbey to make a resurgence, not only because of the difficulty in securing the cast (Lily James, for instance, has since become a hit in Hollywood), but there are also the other production values to consider. When the film does slow down for a minute from jumping between characters, that’s when the set design, costuming, and music begin to shine. The dolly shots of the silverware, the wider angles exposing the extravagant tapestries and paintings, along with the gorgeous establishing shots were always a warm welcome to the movie’s otherwise cluttered pace.
So can someone who hasn’t seen the show enjoy this film? Honestly, it’s a lot of hard work. There are a lot of characters with a lot to learn in just a few minutes. The plot is understandable, though it lacks engagement. I did find some consolation in the fact that my parents also thought the film teetered towards being boring as well.
Time hasn’t been kind–with almost a four year gap between the show concluding and the film release, even a casual viewer may need to peruse a Wikipedia summary as an impromptu refresher course before heading into the cinemas, as some things might be a tad confusing. For newcomers that have a penchant for period pieces, it may be best to simply wait for Little Women, which will no doubt be more tailored for film, as opposed to gate crashing this over-bloated epilogue.
The Bottom Line