“Downton Abbey”: For Fans and Country

Downton Abbey!

Perhaps a bit smaller than stately Wayne Manor, but it’ll have to do.

We thought we’d seen the last of our favorite early-20th-century British property owners, their splendidly ornate possessions, their struggle to maintain their lifestyle even as all their peers fail in droves, and the working-class employees who were more like us. Even though the series finale brought closure and a happy ending — without the doom and gloom that traumatized us in earlier years, no less — leave it to writer/creator Julian Fellowes to confound those expectations and serve one last course of fan service for Anglophiles.

I never wrote about it much on MCC except that time we saw the show’s costumes on tour, but Anne and I watched all six seasons of Downton Abbey on home video — partly because we came into it a bit late; partly because Highclere Castle, where the show was filmed, looks prettier on Blu-ray than through our cable provider’s middling HD; and mostly because those Blu-rays always shipped before our local PBS station could finish airing the entire season. It was quite the treat to order them online, speed through the latest batch of trials and tribulations, and finish weeks ahead of other American fans. Among other benefits, it kept us spoiler-proof in the face of too many poorly thought-out internet recap titles.

Watching at home had other advantages. Turning on subtitles (I watch everything with subtitles) made it easier for me to catch all the dialogue and dialects that my not-so-great hearing could sometimes muddle. Because I’m lousy at history, Anne was right there to explain nuances and backstory to me as needed whenever casual references to British events or royalty tried to fly over my head. Sometimes that meant pausing during viewing for oral footnotes; nearly always, it meant hearing her detailed post-game wrap-up after each episode ended. Like road trips and comic-cons, Downton became one of those things we enjoyed doing together as a couple.

We felt we had to rush out opening weekend to catch the Downton Abbey motion-picture epilogue before spoilers could catch us. Barring a few annoyingly coy Yahoo! headlines, the plan worked. Every film I see in theaters gets its own MCC entry, but I procrastinated because writing this one without Anne’s input felt weird to me. Sooner or later, though, I’ve that promise to keep to myself. You will therefore find this entry is not the historical deep-dive that professional critics or historians can provide.

Short version for the unfamiliar: It’s 1927 and nearly everyone who was alive at the end of the series is still around. Downton is still standing. The villagers are still there. Most of England still loves its monarchy, which is a good thing when Our Heroes learn King George V and Queen Mary, the Royal Family themselves, will be paying a visit. The cast spends a good half-hour reenacting the scene from the Looney Tunes classic “Long-Haired Hare” in which Bugs Bunny, impersonating a famous conductor announces his next tour stop and all the opera lovers are running around in a frenzy yelling, “Leopold is coming! Leopold! Leopold! LEOPOLD!”

So yes, the rulers of all the acreage around them are coming, and good impressions must be made. Everyone pulls out all the stops. They clean and scrub all the possessions and cook all the foods, then buy more and cook all that, too. It’s all hands on deck, including a pair of old friends with no stakes in the game — the esteemed Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) returns from retirement to direct one last soiree when his replacement Thomas (Rob James-Collier) accidentally blinks wrong; and ex-employee Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle), who worked hard to become a schoolteacher, is overcome with royal fever and volunteers to assist, with assuredly awkward and embarrassing results.

Along the way are little subplots putting their problem-solving skills to the test. The snobby royal servants and overseers attending to the King and Queen want nothing to do with Downton’s own, comparatively unpretentious waitstaff. There’s a sudden rash of petty thievery in a few of Downton’s six thousand rooms, a mystery involving as many as one whole credible suspect. A dire assassination plot threatens to create Tarantino-esque alt-history pandemonium if it isn’t thwarted.

We also have a potential love interest for the widower Tom Branson (Allen Leech); the continuing travails of Thomas, footman promoted to butler but still living in fear with The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name; a chance that the husband of Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) may run off to another continent and possibly die on her, because that’s how her luck has always run; and, most contentious of all, a newly revealed older cousin (Imelda Staunton from the world of Harry Potter) is daring to one day die without bequeathing her fortune to the Granthams, which the Dowager Countess (MVP Maggie Smith) of course simply cannot let stand.

It’s all very busy and fretting, but eventually there are bows and ribbons to tie on every concern. There’s a reason Downton has outlived many of its upper-class contemporaries. And we’re reassured once again as the old theme song used to go:

o/~ We can forget all our troubles, forget all our cares, and go
Downton! Things’ll be great when you’re
Downton! Don’t wait a minute for
Downton! Everything’s waiting for you! o/~

…or maybe I’m thinking of something else.

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: I am not listing all twenty (minimum!) returning cast members. I’m just not. Admittedly that’s fewer than Avengers: Endgame, but I cut corners on that one, too.

This section is sometimes useful to readers, but even when it isn’t, it’s a fun way for me to keep track of familiar faces I’ve encountered elsewhere throughout my viewing leisure. Much as the cast of The Wire has done and continues to do, the Granthams and Crawleys have been sneaking into a multitude of other TV shows and movies over the years. Here’s a sampling of where I’ve run across Downton players since the show began or recall vividly from beforehand:

  • Maggie Smith: obviously Professor McGonagall, who’s got nothing on the Dowager Countess
  • Penelope Wilton: Doctor Who, Shaun of the Dead, Netflix’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
  • Matthew Goode: Watchmen, The Imitation Game, A Single Man, also The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
  • Allen Leech: The Imitation Game, Black Mirror
  • Jim Carter: Transformers: The Last Knight
  • Michelle Dockery: Hanna
  • Hugh Bonneville, Phyllis Logan: bits of Doctor Who apiece

Newcomers to their world include Tuppence Middleton (Black Mirror, Jupiter Ascending) as a visiting maid with a shaded past, and Mark Addy (The Full Monty) as an eager shopkeeper. No flashbacks or dream sequences are permitted for previously deceased characters to recur. The film’s feel-good nostalgia for the good ol’ days luxuriates within set boundaries.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Morals of the story include but aren’t limited to:

  • Monarchy is awesome
  • Expensive parties are super awesome
  • Seedy underground parties are maybe not so awesome
  • Stealing is wrong
  • Assassination is wrong
  • Lying is wrong unless it’s to stymie snobs trying to steal your job
  • Lying is also cool if you did it to impress a girl and it totally worked
  • Snobbery is wrong unless we do it and get away with it
  • People have the right to choose their own beneficiaries
  • There exist families in which differing political views do not result in brutal brawls at every gathering
  • Royal couples have problems just like us, except theirs can usually be solved with a stiff upper lip

Nitpicking? For all its gilding, glitz, glamour, and glory, no one found a reason for extra-credit camera work to accentuate its size or style for the big screen. Other than the occasional brief crane shots, we see no showy camera work, no clever cinematography, no motivation to make Highclere Castle look more awe-inspiring than it does normally. We’ve seen these same rooms quite a few times, and at my plebeian level all the vantage points on their regal confines look exactly the same. If there are viewers who can tell that the series’ parties used pretty good china while the movie whips out the really, really good china, then kudos to them for gauging those nuances aimed at them.

As outlined above, the film sustains its running time and preoccupies its ensemble with a number of conflicts, most of which barely register on a dramatic scale. The assassination conspiracy didn’t allocate much manpower or training to the task. The petty thief’s story wouldn’t have vexed Encyclopedia Brown for more than a single page. In the marital strife between royal daughter Princess Mary and her taciturn husband (Kate Phillips and Andrew Havill) it’s clear who’s at fault, but an intervention is avoided in favor of a two-line dismissal. It’s not a spoiler to reveal the Royal Family’s visit ends without any beheading, nor is it this film’s goal to invite the Grim Reaper back to collect another wave of casualties.

It’s rare for a theatrical film to be this persistently nice. I’ve seen Christian films less benign than the Downton Abbey movie.

So what’s to like? On the other hand, do any of us really miss enduring the more grueling hardships of that era? Surviving the war, the epidemic, the fatal accidents, the occasional murder, and that awful rape storyline ultimately brought the family closer together, and brought the fans closer in turn. Given that Our Heroes were essentially retired, perhaps it’s not such a bad thing for their unexpected coda to be one of low-stress challenges, minute status quo changes, and dinner parties. Who’s to deny them the privilege of strolling merrily through two hours of comfort TV writ slightly larger?

If you’ve never watched a single episode of the show, the movie can be taken as a frivolous exercise in class warfare and weightless drama. If you’re a longtime fan, here’s a bonus helping of more of the same. Like any reunion tour, they play all the hits. Branson has his Irish background thrown in his face. Lady Mary is annoyed with what others think she “should” be doing. Daisy loves seeing aristocrats taken down a peg, possibly bitter that after fifteen years she’s still just an assistant cook. Anna and Mr. Bates are really, truly, madly, deeply, sweetly, grandly, eternally in love. Thomas strains to rein in his jerkish impulses and yet is trapped in a state of unrequited yearning. Mr. Molesley has the best slapstick skills and the funniest moments. And other familiar, catchy tunes.

And yes, lest ye worry otherwise, Dame Maggie Smith wins at everything. Though at this point in the timeline the Dowager Countess should be roughly 200 years old, she nonetheless rules the Abbey and the film, whether it’s in her conniving against Imelda Staunton’s curious decisions, in her endless squabbling with prickly cousin Isobel, in her effortless one-liners which Fellowes surely spent hours honing like the proudest artisan, and particularly in the film’s most emotional moment near the end, a meaningful chat between grandmother and granddaughter about the future of Downton, the importance of legacy, and the dignity to be had in ending a run on a high note.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Downton Abbey end credits. I fully expected ads for Carnival Cruise Lines or Highclere Castle tours, but I imagine per tradition they’re saving those as special features for the Blu-ray.

What do you, The Viewers at Home, think?

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