The celebrated TV series concludes with a feature film
Downton Abbey has been a television phenomenon, crossing over into popular culture in a way that PBS series rarely do. Airing for six seasons (2010-2015), the historical drama won tremendous audience and critical acclaim and spawned themed cookbooks and recordings, as well as loving parodies on Saturday Night Live and Funny or Die (the hysterical “Downtown Arby’s”). Closer to home, it inspired the most successful special exhibit in Winterthur’s history, “Costumes of Downton Abbey.”
The drama’s creative team and cast, led by creator and screenwriter Julian Fellowes, have reunited for a feature film that continues the upstairs-downstairs saga of the series. It really functions, though, as a more opulent valedictory writ ever-so-slightly larger for the silver screen. Even with a compact plot summary shown before the film, it will be mostly inscrutable to anyone beyond the show’s devoted fan base. It seems unlikely that Downton Abbey aspires to anything more, though as a Downton-phile, I’m pleased to announce that the movie fully delivers on that simple aspiration.
Like the series, the film is set in the fictional country estate of Downton during the early part of the 20th century, and it follows the daily life of both the ancestral family, the Crawleys, and the coterie of staff that serve them. Fans have followed these beloved characters through a melodramatic gamut of human experiences: births and deaths, romance and scandal, bravery and cowardice, victory and disappointment.
The film focuses on an unexpected visit by King George V and Queen Mary to the manor as part of the royals’ annual tour of the Yorkshire countryside. The frenzied preparation and the arrival of all the royal staff set up the central conflict of the story.
Creator Fellowes understands this rarefied world and these characters exceedingly well, and he also has a deft way with dialogue. The screenplay moves comfortably and briskly forward, pausing with effect for the biting wit of the Crawley matriarch, Violet (played ever so archly by Maggie Smith). Unfortunately, Fellowes does not have the same success with plot development. Many of the twists and turns of this story ring a tad false, and primarily function to produce juicy moments of parlor drama rather than plausible real-world outcomes.
The cast is huge, and the performances are uniformly if fleetingly excellent. But a few beyond Dame Maggie manage to stand out from the crowd, including Jim Carter as the butler Mr. Carson; Allen Leech as the Crawley’s commoner son-in-law Tom; Kevin Doyle as the overly excited Mr. Molesley, and Imelda Staunton as Lady Bagwell.
Director Michael Engler, who helmed several episodes of the series, knows well to keep the rhythms and environs of this cinematic version faithful to those of the show. The art direction, set decoration, and cinematography, which were always first-rate on TV, have been brought to an even finer polish for the movie version, though the lingering shots of the opulent house, its appointments, and its surrounding is often distracting rather than useful. One feels that the production wants the viewer to be extremely aware of the attention paid to every detail. This “PBS porn” approach, it must be said, gives the film an overstuffed quality, as if an entire season of story, events, and exquisite cutlery had been jam-packed into its two-hour length.
I found myself wondering at several points why exactly this movie had been made. There’s nothing especially cinematic about the storytelling here, nor does the film leverage the difference in medium to any real extent. But perhaps that’s not the point. These characters and their stories—set in an environment and time very different than our own —provide a sumptuous respite in a beautiful location with some dear, familiar friends. Not a bad way to spend a few hours in the movie theater.
Downton Abbey: 4 out of 5 stars
“Up in the air, Birdman Junior”
Brad Pitt’s sci-fi vanity project, I think, aspires to be a serious contemplation of father-son relationships and the cost of unbridled ambition set against the backdrop of outer space. Instead, the film is a jumbled mishmash of themes, styles, and pacing that never settles on what it truly wants to be, or say. Evoking half a dozen better movies (including Apocalypse Now and 2001: A Space Odyssey), Ad Astra looks good, with shimmering interstellar cinematography and effects, but the narrative nonsense and scientific impossibilities quickly send the story completely off-course. A terrific cast—Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, and Donald Sutherland—is utterly wasted as mere satellites in Pitt’s melancholic, self-indulgent orbit. Like the detritus that humans leave behind after exploratory missions, Ad Astra is nothing more than space junk.
Ad Astra: 1 out of 5 stars
Also playing in October: the much anticipated comeback of Eddie Murphy as a blaxploitation film star in Dolemite is My Name, Oct. 4; The King, a retelling of the transformation of England’s dissolute Prince Hal into valiant Henry V, starring Timothy Chalamet, Oct. 11; Will Smith in a double role in the adventure thriller Gemini Man, Oct. 11; and a sequel to the hit undead comedy of 2009, Zombieland 2, with Woody Harrelson and Emma Stone, Oct. 18.