‘Downton Abbey’ Review: A Light Touch of Class

A royal visit causes chaos for the inhabitants of Downton Abbey. As the upstairs prepare for an awkward reunion and the downstairs contest with King and Queen’s staff, the situation is complicated further by a thief, a broken boiler, a jealous lover, homophobic police and even a royal assassination! All the while they must consider their role in a changing world.

Unfamiliar with the television show upon which this film is based, I was concerned about my ability to keep up with the story and characters. Screenwriter Julian Fellowes does a very good job of reminding you of who is who by offering enough context in each encounter. The principle characters and how they relate to each other is re-established in almost every scene. He does this without it feeling laborious. Though there a few too many similar looking young, dark haired, white men for comfort, their stories are distinct enough for a coherent narrative.

The film features either fairly mild stakes or speedy resolutions to real problems. Whilst it’s a little difficult to care about the success of the royal visit and the potential embarrassment it may cause to the privileged household, the implications of a royal assassination potentially linked to a member of the household and a servant being arrested in a gay speakeasy are quickly swept away by said privileges. There’s no real world problem that can’t be solved with a little piece of paper with the family’s name on it. The wider context of these problems, the British occupation of a state that wishes to be sovereign and the horrific homophobia that sees a hundred or so extras arrested and not released, is left unexplored. No big questions will be answered here.

The film also shies away from it’s more politically intriguing ideas. Throughout the film the future matriarch of the household considers the relevance of her position (though never quite the morality of enjoying such wealth as a birthright). The existence of the house is justified as giving employment to the servants (none of whom have any chance of advancement or similar position) . Perhaps I’m just a bit of a communist at heart.

The film is, however, very funny. Fellowes excels at writing the lovably pompous and clearly knows how to render these character’s in a sympathetic way. The well practised cast are all extremely natural in their performances. Jim Carter, Maggie Smith and Michelle Dockery in particular are very enjoyable and charismatic presences. With such a large cast, the narrative is fairly crowded, but the cast does much with their screen time.

Stylistically, director Michael Engler is able to deliver a subdued cinematic experience. Beautiful shots of Downton’s interior and exterior, as well as the little town it neighbours create a believable geography to the drama. These characters are made believable in the context of these images. There is some occasional stylistic eccentricity such as a zoom in through a key hole, but these are fairly out of place, and fortunately few.

There’s a sequence in which the character Tom Branson describes his relationship to the film, and it’s clear that he’s also talking about potential reactions to the film. He describes the family as good at heart, though often pretentious and that he wouldn’t give a tuppence for their politics. Good at heart is certainly a fitting description for this love-letter to a (frankly thankfully) bygone age of unchecked aristocratic privilege (reserved now for political and economic elites). There’s a huge amount of affection for this world and it’s characters, but it’s good that film also has a sense of humour about itself and perhaps even an awareness that all of this is best left in the past.

Three Stars

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