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Downton Abbey •••

Starring: Tuppence Middleton, Michelle Dockery, Maggie Smith
Director: Michael Engler
Screenplay: Julian Fellowes
Drama, Rated: PG
Running Time: 122 minutes
Release Date: September 20, 2019



(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, here’s yet another movie based on a popular TV series.

If you want to see a feature-length version of Fawlty Towers on steroids, but without any humor, this is the film for you. Let’s recap:

The year is 1927 and Robert (Hugh Bonneville) and Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern) are informed that the King and Queen of England will be visiting the swanky Downton Abbey estate. The Crawleys are a bit perturbed that Maud (Imelda Staunton), Queen Mary’s lady in waiting, is not including her closest relative, Robert, in her will. Meanwhile, Downton Abbey’s servants are informed that the Royals’ butler and cooking staff will take their place.

And one guy is Irish. And that appears to be a problem for some people. And another guy is gay. And that’s a big secret. And there’s a servant to Maud who is getting her inheritance. And there are two crotchety old ladies who are spinning a web of some sort. And there are servants who are engaged, but the woman is unsure. So she hires a hot furnace guy. So the engaged guy breaks the furnace so that the hot furnace guy has to come back. And there is a young butler who is replaced by an older butler. And that appears to be a problem. And the middle-aged woman who is running everything is unsure if she likes running everything. And her husband is away. And then he returns but he loves Downton Abbey. Damn, there’s a lot of moving parts to this movie and I barely kept it all straight.

Once again we have a successful television series spun into a feature-length film. This time it is a Downton Abbey, that soap-opera-ish portrayal of the interdependent lives of the British upper and lower crusts co-existing in a lavish castle-like manor in the 1920s. I might say that this movie exists merely as an excuse to throw a bunch of beloved characters together again, and to that I say – What’s wrong with that? Nothing at all, it turns out. The arrival of the royals at the house is a wonderful excuse for conflict, hurt feelings, and intrigue. But really, nothing rises above the level of petty jealousy and minor bickering. It’s all mostly good fun.

If this movie has one centrally defining message, it is that sometimes good movies don’t need to have a centrally defining message. Seriously, this film is reunion opportunity, nothing more and nothing less. It’s an excuse to gather together a group of likeable characters who (mostly) do likeable things and are forced from time to time to extricate themselves from pretty trivial mishaps. I suppose the movie’s other messages might include the importance of being a decent human being, being able to rise to various challenges, and being tolerant toward those who differ from you politically and economically.

I’ll go a step further. I believe this film is a bridge to a new series: Downton Abbey: The Next Generation. Nothing of any import happens here. If you have never seen the show, as I have not, you will not be amused. There was absolutely no effort here to introduce these characters. Even I, a white man of a certain age, had trouble telling all these white people apart. There were at least a dozen primary characters in this film. So, unless you are a fan of the TV show, you will probably not enjoy Downton Abbey. I know I didn’t.

I don’t know what else to add here. This was a dull, multi-plotted story about people I didn’t know and could not care less about. I didn’t find anyone particular appealing or likable. Even the Irishman who saved the King of England (is this a big deal? Because I don’t know English history or politics) was not very exciting. There was some woman crying in the garden. I guess she was the daughter of the King and didn’t enjoy being a Royal. Talk about not acknowledging your White Privilege.

And there’s a whole strange “the servants are happy with their lot in life” undercurrent here, too. Somehow the servants are very proud of being enslaved in a caste system they cannot escape. They take pride in waiting hand and foot on their betters. So much so that (rather than being thankful for a paid week off) they trick the king’s entourage into going to London so they can wait hand and foot on the king and queen. It’s a very strange sight indeed.

Downton Abbey delivers exactly what ardent fans of the series desire, namely, a follow-up to the beloved show that serves up all the same hoity-toity, upper-class social niceties and lower class loyalty and dependency on those niceties. If Downton Abbey is just a silly excuse to assemble all these interesting characters together again, then I’m all for it. The two hours I spent in the theater were probably a waste of my time but it was an enjoyable waste, for sure. I give this film 4 Reels out of 5.

It seems almost silly to view this movie with an eye to heroism when — with the exception of the foiled assassination attempt — I can’t think of a single instance of heroic action in the story. Yes, some people act nobly and kindly, but there wasn’t much in terms of self-sacrifice, significant risk-taking, and exceptional good to be found here. There isn’t a hero’s journey within 100 kilometers of Downton Abbey, and so I can only give the film a perfunctory 1 Hero point out of 5.

As I’ve mentioned, the messages of this movie are few and far between. The characters that populate Downton Abbey are almost all trying to do their best to meet the demands of the situations presented before them. Perhaps that’s all we need to glean from the story – life is mostly about putting our best selves out there in life, and sometimes this can be hard work. I give the movie 2 Message points out of 5.

Movie: Message: Heroes:

I feel it is unfair of me to review this film. It simply wasn’t made for me. Aside from the fact that I knew about “Downton Abbey” (the TV show), I know nothing about the show. I don’t think this should have been a major motion picture. It should have been a made-for-TV release. Only fans of the show could have kept up with the many plotlines based on years of threads of storylines from the TV show.

I was happy to see what may be the farewell performance of Dame Maggie Smith, however. She’s a national treasure (both of the UK and US). I give this film 2 out of 5 Reels, 1 out of 5 Heroes, and 1 out of 5 Message points.

Movie: Message: Heroes:

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