There are some films that you really have to see on the big screen. Not this one, though. To get the full, authentic experience, you’ll need to see it on the small screen, on 27 December, with quart of eggnog inside you and enough Quality Street to trigger a diabetic coma. It is at all times ridiculous – but, I have to admit, quite enjoyable.
This standalone movie special is based on the smash-hit telenovela of picturesque Brit poshness, Downton Abbey – all about the interwar aristos with problems that go well beyond as anything as déclassé as “first world” – and this film is like the most intensely glucose and sometimes baffling Christmas special. It is structured like any TV episode around a set of concurrent subplots, delivered in a series of little bite-size scenes, played in and out with strident little orchestral stings on the soundtrack. Every so often you can feel the rhythmic thud of where the ad break would normally go – where it will go, in fact, when this goes to TV.
The screenwriter is Julian Fellowes, who of course created the all-star country-house murder mystery Gosford Park in 2001, which won him the Oscar for best original screenplay and whose aristocratic setting he cleverly converted into the global TV phenomenon of Downton. With Robert Altman’s shrewd directorial flair for ensemble playing, Gosford Park was a witty, spiky, subversive tale of violence and snobbery. Downton Abbey on TV was much more lightweight, and this is a bit exposed in the cinema. It’s actually possible to imagine a new TV series spun off in turn from this movie, which is even more vanilla, and then a new film, and so on, until we have incrementally blanded down to something like My Little Pony.
The Downton Abbey movie is not as spectacularly star-studded as Gosford Park, but it’s got its share of A-list talent, however: Maggie Smith, of course, as the dowager Countess of Grantham, Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham (absent-mindedly fondling his retriever at breakfast) – there’s also Imelda Staunton in a new role and Jim Carter as the beetle-browed former butler Mr Carson. All are very underused.
The setting now is 1927, and lawks-a-mercy, the grand house of Downton is all of a flutter and a fluster upstairs and down with news that King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) will be coming to stay the night and make a military inspection of local troops: “There’s to be a parade of hussars in the village!” yelps someone excitedly. But oh dear, the downstairs staff are enraged when the monarch brings in his own royal servants who pull rank on them, while the formidable Countess of Grantham (Smith) is nettled to see that the Queen has brought her lady-in-waiting Lady Bagshaw (Staunton), a distant cousin with whom she has a serious beef. Also, some little silver knick-knacks around the house are going missing, and there’s a mysterious military fellow who seems to have taken a room in a pub with a view overlooking where His Majesty will be standing on the village green.
Exasperatingly, many of the plotlines – the central royal drama and the confrontation between Lady Grantham and Lady Bagshaw – are accelerated and resolved with almost surreal speed. But one which is emphasised is a new development in the life of the Downton franchise’s gay character, Barrow, the footman-turned-butler played by Robert James-Collier, whose sexuality is acknowledged and even celebrated. However, I do have to point out that his new trance of love means that he simply isn’t very good at his job and Mr Carson has to be brought out of retirement for butlering duties on the night of royal specialness. Meanwhile, Barrow disports himself at the kind of secret establishment which Mr Fellowes imagines existing in Yorkshire in the 1920s.
Basically, the plots are rickety and the characterisation has the depth of a Franklin Mint plate, but there are some funny moments and Kevin Doyle, playing the overexcitable servant Molesley, pretty much steals the entire film with his embarrassing outburst of royalist love and Downton pride over dinner. When the grand patrician company falls into a deathly hush and director Michael Engler goes in for a closeup on Molesley’s aghast face, you’d need a heart of stone not to laugh. Otherwise, there are sad and sombre moments, closing on a rousingly reactionary and entertainingly preposterous big-up for the country house culture: a note of finality to signal that this really is it now. Or is the franchise just beginning? You’ve heard of Fast and Furious. We could be in for The Languid and Lugubrious: Downton 2.
•Released on 13 September in the UK, 19 September in Australia, and 20 September in the US.
Source: The Guardian