Downton Abbey (aka Downton Abbey: The Movie) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
The return to Downton Abbey presents itself more as a scattershot homecoming than a touching finale. Much akin to the Absolutely Fabulous movie, this reunion special of sort brings all the familiar faces back of upper-class wealth, the abbey staff, and royalty for a 1927 era romp. We get all the familiar melodramatic beats of swirling affairs as well as some tension of the times. But with a film bursting with dozens of cast members and a script that includes B, C, D and E plots, the result is a mixed bag of pleasing costume drama and fizzling period piece commentary.
The film begins with what I like to call Period Piece Porn. When Downton Abbey receives a letter about the King and Queen coming for a visit, we don’t see the letter arriving at the abbey. We see the letter being written in fine ink. That letter is then handed off to a royal footman. That letter is then placed on an old-fashioned train. That train takes it to a 1920s post office. And so on. Such is the alluring camera work of Downton Abbey, never missing an opportunity to zoom in on something decadent. So when butlers bring out food for dinner, you better believe we’re going to get an eye-full of that platter.
Anyway, with the King and Queen coming, there’s a lot going on within the Scottish town. A political player arrives who may or may not be involved with an assassination attempt on the King. Intriguing but don’t get too attached. This is just one of many compelling arcs that start with unique ideas and are then quickly resolved before they get good. An assassin reveals himself and questions the political problems of the town just before he is hauled away and never to be heard from again. One member of the abbey ventures to a secret gay club and avoids being arrested in a raid because of his credentials, only briefly harping on how tough it is to be secretly homosexual in such a time. Perhaps the most troubling is the plot of a thieving seamstress. She is caught and blackmailed into finishing a dress overnight, her plight of questioning the class structure shut down far too early.
Part of me wants to see these plots play out but another part of me understands why they’re reserved to being mini-arcs. Clearly the focus is more on the drama within Downton Abbey and it’s clearly the bigger strength of the picture. The most vivid plotline is that of the abbey staff being shoved aside by the royal staff. Irritated they’ll never be able to serve the King and Queen, which may be the highest honor of their entire lives, they stage a mischievous scheme to send the royal staff out on errands and locked in their rooms. It’s especially fun to watch these scenes play out with the wonderful Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) returning once more with charm and sterness, reluctant to go ahead with such schemes.
The whole cast puts their best foot forward in the most gorgeous of outfits but there’s clearly one major star of this picture and she happens to be the oldest. You just can’t get around this film without talking about Maggie Smith as the abbey’s Dowager Countess. Every scene she occupies she eats everyone alive with her words that cut deep and always have the best wit. It’s especially fun to watch her butt heads with Imelda Staunton as Lady Bagshaw as they bicker of heirs. There was so much going on in this picture but it becomes pretty clear the main event was Smith vs. Staunton (or at least that’s what I wanted out of the picture).
The film ends with the possibility of more Downton Abbey but I’m reluctant for a return visit given such a distance it keeps from juicier plots that are treated more as fluff than intrigue. I’m just saying there was ample opportunity here for the abbey to go up in flames when the boiler breaks down twice and is then forgotten about. Imagine how dramatic that ending would be, where the family watches the abbey burn to the ground, only for Smith to mention “The real Downton Abbey will always be in our hearts.”