The act of turning television shows into feature films has a bit of a rocky reputation. For every Wayne’s World are seemingly dozens of Dark Shadows or The Flintstones. Downton Abbey is by no means the worst of the bunch, but its adoration of the One Percent and its refusal to look deeply into any single plot thread make it a little tedious and a little repetitive for any casual fans.
Picking up not long after the TV series ended, the movie version of Downton Abbey focuses its gaze around a royal visit. The King and Queen (Simon Jones and Geraldine James) have announced their intention to tour the country and spend a night at Downton. This naturally throws the whole household into a tizzy, on both sides of the class lines. The Granthams gather gowns and arrange visits while all their servants beam with pride at the prospect of serving the height of royalty. While the circumstances of the plot are anything but ordinary, the house’s overall reaction to the curated drama is everything we would expect from the well-loved series.
Much like the television show, the accompanying storylines and drama arcs are very much in line with a softened soap opera style. The show had rape and incarceration and the occasional affair, and here the movie has spontaneous romance, fleeting violence, and blackmail. Though each turn in a character’s motivation tends to be wholly unrelated to any semblance of character development or a deepening understanding of the context of their actions within a society, it’s pretty entertaining to watch them get involved in their little adventures.
All of the beloved characters are back, and they’re each given precisely one thing to do. This is not to say that one character might not show up as a pawn in another character’s personal subplot, but the majority of the players have a single concern to be resolved and tied into a tidy bow.
Amongst the softball fun of the lighthearted story is a tone-deaf defense of the upper echelons of society. The lush setting of Downton is part of the escapist fantasy of watching either the show or the movie. Were it not for the rigors of constant wardrobe changes, silver polishing, and multi-course feasts, the Granthams would have little to do with their unemployed selves. This is not only an accepted reality of the era and class standing of this setting, it’s a treasured one.
However, Downton Abbey goes too far in preaching the value of these antiquated ways as a necessity to maintain the spirit of their village and of England. The quaint notion that excessive estates and flamboyant frivolity are what keep the gears of society churning guilds over the centuries of cultural problems generated by this very system.
Longtime fans of the Downton Abbey television show will love to revisit the characters they admire and the estate they swoon over, and when it comes down to it, the film is truly made for them. If you’re not already invested in the drama or an affection for the people, you’ve been warned.
I’m looking forward to seeing this next week. There are usually two types of period drama. First, The Pride and Prejudice/Wives and Daughters/Little Women type, that are cheerful and uplifting, with sufficient character and story depth without becoming overburdened and depressing. Then there are the squalid, grim, misery-saturated type, where everyone’s rolling in mud, eating scraps, working and dying in coal mines, and bemoaning the oppression of the evil aristocratic elite (Just think of the ‘watery tart/moistened bint’ scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail).
Downton is mostly the former, with a dash of the latter just for flavour, without wallowing in it. There are no end of social commentary ‘look how evil rich people are’ stories out there. Sometimes it’s nice just to enjoy some light-hearted, feel good, nostalgic period drama that sends you out with a warm glow and a smile on your face, rather than getting the hammer-of-social-commentary beaten over your head with every story. 😉