Earlier this year, I reviewed a pair of ‘period drama’ films, in those reviews I expressed that I’m not a fan of these kind of films, they’re scarcely involving enough for my tastes and it’s rare that any of the period characters are likeable.
So, you’d think that a film version of the wildly popular television period drama Downton Abbey wouldn’t cross my critical radar, but in truth, I am always willing to be surprised, and seeing how popular this film currently is at the box office, I’d be doing a disservice to my readership if I missed such a massive release.
I’ve never sat and watched a full episode of the TV series of Downton Abbey, but I was confident I could fill in the gaps of the characters stories, as they don’t generally tend to stray very far from certain archetypes, and I was correct in this assessment, I felt as though I grasped the characters and setting well enough without having seen the TV show, which is an early mark in the film’s favour at least, but would it manage to keep my interest for its runtime?
Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) receives word that the King & Queen will be coming to stay at Downton Abbey for an evening, accompanied by the numerous members of the royal staff, who soon push out the loyal Downton staff, causing a fightback from the servants.
I will admit right out of the gate that I might not be the best person to judge Downton Abbey. I have no interest in films of its ilk, I’ve never seen the TV show, and I’m most certainly not the target audience (who judging by the people in the screening I attended, are rarely younger than 80).
What I find most egregious about Downton is its patronising portrayal of the British class system, something which is still evident in modern society, but unfortunately still lingers on in fringes of the upper class. The celebration of the old members of the upper class seems like nothing more than propaganda for a time thought of as ‘the good old days’ when those days were, in fact, nowhere near as good as anyone remembers.
For what it’s worth, I do get a sense that the real story lies with the workers of the Downton house, but then the script will lose that and romanticise the upper-classes in a baffling tonal inconsistency.
The life-Blood of the house seems to be in the staff, the cooks and the maids. The upper classes seem like blank slates, all smiles and forced charm, but with none of the character. There’s a reason the class system is obsolete, because the constant primping and preening to those who have more money, and thus, supposedly, more worth got wearisome for most, and not a moment too soon.
All this being said, and as nauseating as I find most of the upper crust in this film, it is always my task to look at a film as subjectively as possible, to look at it with a critical eye for film, and not for ethics. If I involved myself with writing about every film controversy, I’d scarcely find the time to sleep.
So, as a film then, did I enjoy Downton Abbey? Well, it’s a loaded question, I enjoyed it a hell of a lot more than I expected to, but it also struggled to hold my attention throughout its runtime, there are parts and sections of the film that I think would have been better on the cutting room floor, not an awful lot of interest things happen in the film to begin with, without filling it with additional padding.
From a filmmaking perspective, it’s incredibly well realised, as well. Its direction is engaging and eye-catching , and its script is, in parts, razor-sharp and as tight as walnut corset. But it does suffer from bloating around the middle and unnecessary faff and nonsense, with its over-abundance of characters being my chief complaint. It’s almost impossible to keep up with all of the different people being mentioned, and it’s even more difficult to think of a reason why I should care.
It’s biggest saving grace is its cast, who do a phenomenal job with what they’re given. Dame Maggie Smith is the highlight for my, utilising her unique flair for acidic wit to its highest potential, with impressive supporting turns from the likes of Imelda Staunton and Jim Carter rounding out a stellar cast.
So, all in all then, I found more to like than I thought I would, but saying that, I expected to be bored half to death from minute one, so I was surprised to be taken in by the immersive world the film created, and charmed by accomplished performances, it caught me off-guard in some ways, but in other areas, it entirely matched my expectations for dullness, a real mixed bag for me, and it just affirms my position of apathy towards the romanticism of the past.
If you liked the TV show, I think there’s enough to recommend, but, if like me you’re unfamiliar with the show, you won’t feel lost for your lack of foreknowledge, but I wouldn’t imagine you’d be stimulated by the experience either.