There is a tradition with TV shows that turn into feature films where the central characters all go off on some sort of trip. Take, for example, such varied classics as Ab Fab, Bad Education, The Inbetweeners, Are You Being Served, Kevin and Perry Go Large, Sex and the City 2, Holiday on the Buses, Lizzie McGuire, Hannah Montana, Mr Bean’s Holiday, David Brent: Life on the Road and Top Cat and the Beverly Hills Cats. Even the X-Files Movie ends up in Antarctica. You can see why they do it as it is an easy way of taking the bigger budget and extending the scope of the narrative.
They can’t do this here though because in this case the existing location is everything. It is even the name of the show. I know there were various episodes that briefly took some of the cast off to London or the Scottish Highlands but the house is absolutely central to Downton Abbey. If it isn’t stating the obvious, without Downton Abbey there’s no Downton Abbey.
What they’ve had to do here then is ramp everything up but within the confines of the established setting. To this end they’ve looked at what defines the show and they’ve maxed it out, they’ve taken the posh and made it even posher. They’ve pumped up the pomp. How have they done this? Only by having the monarchy come to stay. Good golly! It’s a simple idea but it works. There is no denying that they could have made this a more interesting film by mixing things up a bit but that would undoubtedly have divided the huge fan base. They’ve gone for safe and familiar and that’s almost certainly exactly what was called for.
Like Avengers: Endgame, Downton Abbey: The Motion Picture is mostly for those viewers who have already watched all of the central characters’ previous adventures. It’s not that you wouldn’t be able to follow what is going on without this, they’ve actually done a pretty good job of making the set up clear, but you wouldn’t get the nuances of what the people on screen are doing if you don’t know the journeys they have taken. The triumphant change in Daisy, for example, is not as much fun if you can’t recognise it. Similarly, seeing the subtle but beautiful reaction in Mrs. Patmore when she almost cries with pride because of this, won’t make your heart swell magnificently if you don’t already love these people. (Can you tell which camp I’m in?) Also, just like Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely did with Endgame, writer Julian Fellowes has brilliantly juggled a big ensemble cast. If I’m honest I don’t think the dog deserved his own poster but otherwise everyone here has their moment. Carson turning up to save the day is not quite the same as Captain Marvel arriving at a key moment to swing the direction of the battle but in many ways this is very much the Sunday teatime crowd’s MCU.
Trying to judge this impartially, I do have to admit that there are two sides to this coin. Yes, everyone gets a nice neat subplot but some of these are stronger or more developed than others. Tom Branson is on a proper little mission at one point but it is all quickly wrapped up with none of the drama it merits and there is a storyline involving most of the service staff and how they react to the stuck up employees of the royal household that is frankly ridiculous. One element surrounding Lady Mary’s doubts about the future is all resolved in one or two conversations. Given time to breathe, there is actually enough narrative in the film to fill a whole series of the show (in fact more happens here than in the whole of series five) but Fellowes seems to whiz through most of it, keen to get everything in in case he doesn’t get another chance. Eight or nine less story threads might have served the movie better. While they are also truncated, there are scenes surrounding Thomas Barrow’s sexuality that should be applauded though. There are certainly some countries with a strong fan base where national prejudices might not like this and the film could easily have chosen not to challenge them in this way.
I have a real fondness for the Downton Abbey show, as followers of this blog’s Facebook page will know if they saw me counting down the days to the film’s release. As such I really enjoyed it and anyone in the same position undoubtedly will too. I can’t help but suspect though, and I say this with indulgent affection, that if you don’t already love these characters then much of it might seem a little silly or inconsequential. There, I bally well said it!
The Ripley Factor:
For a start I’m not sure why there are quite so many scenes with Edith in her underwear but this is 1927 so she’s hardly exposing anything.
The Downton Abbey TV show had lots of strong women but the real feminist ambassadors are a little sidelined here. Mary is still effectively lord of the manor and she does take things into her own hands at moments of crisis but she does this by calling on a man to help. Edith seems to have given up running her magazine in favour of supporting her husband, Cora makes no mention of her essential work at the hospital and Sybil is sadly still dead. The below stairs women fair a little better and do stand up to male bullying but don’t get me started on that again. There are a couple of new players in the shape of Imelda Staunton and Tuppence Middleton who are gently working to undermine patriarchal rule to get what they deserve and at one point the Queen is shown to be wearing the trousers in her marriage. In the end though, thank goodness for Maggie Smith. Just as always the Dowager Countess dominates with limited screen time, has all the best lines and here, right in the closing minutes, proves to be the most important, inspiring and bravest of them all.