Downton Abbey cast: Maggie Smith, Michelle Dockery, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Imelda Staunton, Simon Jones, Geraldine James
Downton Abbey director: Michael Engler
Downton Abbey rating: 2 stars
Right about now, one branch of the British royal family is touring Pakistan, and the other, having returned from a successful tour of Africa, is being dissected for suing one of its infamous tabloids. That Downton Abbey thinks it can, profitably, make the jump from the small screen to the big, should not come as a complete surprise. However, what may pass off as a nostalgic throwback to genteel times on TV, with always a promise of something to follow in the next episode, is just a sodden apology for royalty in the theatres.
The Crown TV series, which followed Downton Abbey, focused on the foibles of the British monarchy, helping us see and feel for those blue-blooded things even within their golden splendour. In this film, the only “treason”/”revolution” (both the film’s words) that the Lord and Missus of the Manor face is their servants mounting a minor rebellion against the King’s groupies for the “right to serve them”.
The film is almost tone-deaf to its grating politics such as this, with the ‘Downstairs’ literally basking and stuttering in the presence of ‘Upstairs’. And no, there is no commentary therein, with everyone concerned happy with their respective situation. On the contrary, more than once, an appeal is made for the status quo — on why Britain needs the royalty (“to brighten our lives with glamour”), and even minor estates like Downton Abbey (“to be at the heart of the lives of its staff, village, county”). When someone questions the morality of the royalty’s costly possessions, a loyal retainer asks, in all seriousness, “So your argument being that if everyone can’t have them, no one should?”
When it does venture into actual politics, for example the Republicans who oppose monarchy or the Irish who oppose Britain, it is only to co-opt them in the royalty’s “generous” embrace. The 1926 general strike, of the have-nots against the haves, is dismissed as a minor irritant. The film’s boldest scene involves a gay bar where men try to inject some enthusiasm with a bit of fox-trot. Ok, they also kiss, giving Downton Abbey one shot at appearing “progressive”.
Meanwhile, as it makes its way from preparations for the King and Queen’s visit, to a parade for them, to a lavish dinner hosted for them, and a ball to round it off, Downton Abbey has scraps of a story. The TV show’s much-rewarded cast has largely fully seized at this big-screen resurrection (four years after the series wrapped up), including the director and screenplay writer (Julian Fellowes). Upstairs, they are concerned about an undelivered gown, a “stolen” inheritance, the rain soaking chairs before the King’s parade, hot water, a coming child, and an uncouth husband. Downstairs, they are vying to serve their “King and country”, with any bitterness only directed at the royal entourage, as they are united when it comes to the larger cause — be it cooking the best meal for their lords, polishing the manor’s surfaces to glitter, getting the boiler working, making the dress ready, handling crises such as missing silver, and taking time out for a romance.
Watch only if any of this sets a tingle down your spine. Or, just watch it for Maggie Smith. How about one film based on just the scathing Lady Violet Crawley, who makes the strongest case for why we should have Downton Abbey around? Some queens don’t require a crown.