Movie review: You can still enjoy the 'Downton Abbey' film without seeing the series

Fred Hawson

Posted at Sep 30 2019 05:35 AM

A scene from 'Downton Abbey'

I had long heard of "Downton Abbey," but I never had the chance to watch even a single episode of this beloved British TV series which aired from 2010 to 2015. When announcements of a movie version came out, I wanted to go watch it because I liked these British aristocratic period drama movies, like those much-missed Merchant-Ivory films of the late '80s and '90s. However, I was apprehensive that I may not be able to follow the story if it referred to past story lines or characters. 

It was 1927. The Crawley family along with whole Downton Abbey household was thrown into excitement when a letter arrived announcing that King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) were visiting their estate as part of the royal tour around the country. Among the masters, there was the issue of Dowager Countess of Grantham Violet Crawley and her falling out with her cousin Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), who was coming as the Queen's lady-in-waiting. Among the servants, there was a turf war between the proud Downton Abbey staff and the arrogant royal staff members with fancy titles who were boxing them out of serving the royal guests.

Even if I knew nothing about any of the Downton Abbey characters, I can see why they had legions of devoted fans. These characters, both masters and servants alike, were all very personable and likable. Even if I had never met them before, their personalities were so distinct, it was as if I already knew them already.

The Crawley family was led by the Dowager Countess of Grantham Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith). Her witty zingers were delightful, and, with Smith's revered stature, may just earn her an Oscar nomination. Her son Robert (Hugh Bonneville) was the Earl of Grantham. His wife was Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), and they had two adult daughters Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Edith (Laura Carmichael) and their husbands Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode) and Bertie Pelham (Harry Hadden-Paton) respectively. 

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There was also Tom Branson (Allen Leech), Robert's widower son-in-law and former chauffeur. Of this set, it was Branson who figured in three significant side stories, one about an assassination attempt, another about a contemplated separation, and a third about a clueless heiress.

Their household staff was led by Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) who was reinstated as head butler for this movie, and his wife, the former Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) was head housekeeper. John Bates (Brendan Coyle) was Sir Robert's valet and his wife Anna (Joanne Froggatt), now Lady Mary's personal maid. Their bickering with Mr. Wilson (David Haig), the Royal Page of the Backstairs; Mrs. Webb (Richenda Carey), the Queen's Royal Dresser and Monsieur Courbet (Phillipe Spall), the royal chef, provided much of the comedy in the film. 

Thomas Barrow (Robert James Collier) was the butler, but for this movie was given his own individual side plot about his being a closeted gay man. 

The film reminded me a lot of "Gosford Park" (Robert Altman, 2001) where the contrasting stories of the rich lords were being told in parallel with those of their servants. Both screenplays were written by the same person, Julian Fellowes. He actually won an Oscar for his original screenplay of "Gosford Park." He expanded this idea to create "Downton Abbey" the TV series, and now this film. 

The pace of the story telling by American director Michael Engler was at just the right clip as would be expected of a multi-threaded tale about British gentry, their genteel lifestyles and idiosyncratic foibles. The flow of the film was quite steady and even (which others may call "stuffy"), with a just a couple of detours out of the estate for some excitement (which I found somewhat off-tangent). 

Being of a decidedly dry manner of speech and wry sense of humor, this type of film is an acquired taste and would probably appeal more to the baby boomers and Generation X. The Anglophile in me enjoyed it a lot, even without seeing the original series. 

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."