A world of elegance and charm, Downton Abbey makes the leap to the big screen with comparative ease. We join the Crawleys as a letter is delivered. The Royal Family – King George V and Queen Mary – will be stopping over at Downton during a tour. It’s one night to impress, and put on a show. It’s what Downton does best.
But as the preparations begin, feathers are ruffled as it becomes clear that the Royal Family travel with a large contingent – and those servants will be waiting on the Royals, not the Downton staff. Scandal and political intrigue threaten to bring a halt to proceedings, but the real story begins to emerge as the guests arrive.
On the list is Lady Violet’s cousin, Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton). Working as a Lady-in-Waiting to Queen Mary, Bagshaw’s estate is without an heir. Lady Violet sees her son, the Earl of Grantham, as the natural choice to inherit. The charm offensive begins, but it becomes clear that there is a problem. Maud’s relationship with her maid, Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton), is more complex than propriety dictates. There is a secret that needs to be uncovered.
Directed by Michael Engler, and a screenplay from Downton creator Julian Fellowes, the film hits every sweet spot a Downton fan would want. While Fellowes doesn’t do ground-breaking drama, the magic of Downton is in its characters. We have the power struggle between the servants – culminating in Carson (Jim Carter) coming out of retirement to supervise. The slowly-thawing relationship between Lady Mary and Lady Edith; Daisy’s reluctance to set a wedding date with Andy – we stay watching not for the big moments, but for the relationships that feel so familiar they are almost like family.
While Downton Abbey doesn’t really offer us anything new in terms of substance – and why tamper with a winning formula – the film certainly delivers on style. The jewels are bigger and better; the silver is freshly polished. Shot in golden, autumnal tones, even Highclere Castle revels at being shown in widescreen. The film is at a point in history where Edith can cheerily pootle along in a car she is driving herself, but when faced with the Royal Family, the bows and curtsies are as strictly observed as they would have been in the Victorian era. Downton’s world is caught between the ancient and modern. When the boiler packs in, the servants have to cart huge bowls of water upstairs for the family. They wonder how the servants of previous generations managed. The answer, they realise, is resignation – they had no other choice.
But the film endeavours to move forward, just a little. Now elevated to the role of Butler, Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) is starting to explore his sexuality with more daring. An off-duty flirtation leads to him visiting an underground club where men drink -and dance together – freely. Unfortunately for Thomas, his visit coincides with a police bust. He, along with everyone else in the club, is carted off to the police station to be charged. It is a depressing reality that Thomas is only saved from disgrace by his connections. A well-timed name drop, and Thomas is out of the clink. His fellow club-goers are not so lucky.
Fellowes has been accused of sugar-coating the unpleasant facts of the Downton era. Because this is a subject close to his heart, Fellowes doesn’t circumvent the manner in which Thomas is treated. The promise of a relationship is tempered by the knowledge that tokens of love must be exchanged in private. This is as close as Fellowes gets to confronting the truths of the past. The grinding poverty experienced by the majority during this time is barely touched upon. The experience of the Crawleys, Fellowes acknowledges, is extraordinary. We turn our gaze away from an uncertain future, and celebrate the stoic traditions of a life that cannot stay as it is. Politics, war – they barely scratch the polished surface, but then we don’t go to Downton for realness.
Fellowes understands this, and delivers a storyline packed with opportunities for glamour. We enjoy the glamour, because we know it is the last signal coming from a dying world. As the film draws to a close, Carson confidently predicts that Downton will be in situ 100 years hence. It is a rare note of doubt, while making the point that Highclere, standing behind him, has beaten the odds.
The film is exactly as you would imagine it to be. The double acts we love are still there: Daisy ponders life’s big questions while Mrs Patmore nags her to finish the pastry. Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton) and Lady Violet (Maggie Smith) are on top form, exchanging barbs at a furious pace. Maggie Smith gets all the best lines and pays Fellowes back with a comic timing that’s nothing short of sublime.
Reviving a television show and giving it the big screen treatment is of course cashing in on fan loyalty. Downton finished in 2015, but the brand has been so successful, so ubiquitous, that it feels like it has never really gone away. As soon as John Lunn’s title music begins, we are plugged straight back into that memory of cosy Sunday nights.
Following the interest in Downton Abbey and Breaking Bad follow-up, El Camino, we can expect to see more big screen / small screen crossovers. Even this year, the amount of sequels and remakes point at an industry catering to an audience willing to watch more of the same, rather than risk something new.
In the short term, this makes everyone happy. But resting on remakes is not sustainable – there’s only so much material to go round. While Downton delivers that hit of nostalgia, there’s not enough of it to become a proper film franchise. This leaves film in a more precarious state, especially when competing with the newest producers on the block. Netflix, Amazon Prime and Apple are making big gains. In order to stay ahead, film has to think bigger.
For the audience, our role has become more than passive consumer; the way we choose to spend our money and time has never been more crucial. More choice may be fun for us, but what we choose to watch will end up determining what we are offered in the future. It’s up to us to set the pace and the standard. Buy smart, be discerning. Carson would most definitely approve.