Now, the hit ITV period drama Downton Abbey is waltzing onto the big screen for its comeback tour. The year is 1927. We find our favourite characters right where we left them, in the monolith of masonry that is the Crawley-ancestral home. We have to admit – it’s damn hard to fight that tingling sensation when the square schloss emerges onto the screen to John Lunn’s surging, swelling theme.
Screenwriter Julian Fellowes was tasked with coming up with a storyline worthy of a feature film, landing on the conceit of a Royal Visit to Downton. Most of the major cast have reprised their original TV roles, including Hugh Bonneville as the Earl of Grantham, Jim Carter as Carson, and Maggie Smith as the imperious Dowager Countess of Grantham. Notable new members of the cast include Imelda Staunton, playing a Crawley cousin named Lady Bagshaw, and David Haig (of Killing Eve) as the Royal Butler.
With almost as many characters as a Marvel film, many of our old friends end up with a superfluous line or two or standing around like extras with little reference to the rich backstories which once gripped us at home. The plot is similarly inchoate, devoid of tension or climax. There's certainly promise in the film's dishy servings of inheritance scandals and assassination attempts, but these are bathetically blended into the melange of side-plots, and given tantamount importance to the matter of just exactly who will polish the silver.
The arrival of the Royal Household sets the story up for the usual upstairs downstairs intrigue. However, Fellowes refuses to let his characters revert back to their former proclivities which were neatly ironed out and stored away at the end of the season six, permitting only minor peccadillos and harmless tricks to be played out by the Downton staff. There are some half-hearted gestures towards romance, but nothing to get hot under the collar about. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), who once accidentally killed a Turkish diplomat during sex, returns to us only as the straight-laced lady of the house whose biggest problem is how to arrange the chairs for the country parade. At least Michael Patrick King had the cahones to face a fiasco head-on in the first Sex in the City film by having Big abandon Carrie at the altar – now that’s drama.
Despite all this, it can’t be denied that the film makes for pleasurable and lavish watching. The costumes, music, and accents all exude the sweet perfume of time and television past with the vacuous charm of a Christmas special. After all, the film doesn’t need to pander to critics, as droves of fans will be flocking to the cinema, giving few points for surprise or originality, but plenty for familiarity and spectacle.
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13 Sep 19 – 13 Sep 20, TIMES VARY