Join John with the domestics downstairs to enjoy fooling the toffs upstairs.
Director: Michael Engler (Sex and the City)
Screenplay: Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park)
Cast: Michelle Dockery, Matthew Goode
Runtime: 2hr 2 min
By: John DeSando
For the dramedy Downton Abbey, set in 1920’s Yorkshire, let me settle the question most often asked: Do you need to have seen the wildly popular TV show of the same name and origin to enjoy the film? No. It stands alone as an entertaining visit to an estate that contains the changes coming in a robustly interesting time between world wars.
The Crawleys and their relatives own Downton while the servants run it. The conflicts between the upstairs and downstairs are few, and the respect is rampant. The underclass is blissfully devoted to the aristocrats, while the blue bloods subtly realize how much they need the blue collars. The concurrent subplots pile up in a bewildering number, to the extent you might long for a commercial break to take a breath.
Especially as the visit from the royals is imminent. King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) will descend for one night bringing their staff with them. Of the many struggles featured in this jam-packed character drama, the workers must stifle their humiliation that they will not be serving the royals; a parallel group of intruder commoners, who travel with the royals, will replace Mr. Carson, Mrs. Patmore, and Mrs. Hughes, and the rest of the domestics. How the Downton staff manages to serve the royals anyway forms a delightful pageant of deceit and tomfoolery, lightly emphasizing their playfulness and the lack thereof in the aristocrats.
Like the countless rooms in the abbey, the intrigues are many, but to the credit of director Michael Engler (he knows complicating circumstances from directing Sex and the City), each one is clearly etched and each character amply defined (at least for the large size of the cast). Fans of the TV series will delight in seeing once again the dowager countess Violet (Maggie Smith) deliver her usual barbed comments to anyone who will listen.
When a minor relative, Tom Branson (Allen Leech), becomes involved with a maid, Lucy (Tuppence Middleton), to a royal lady-in-waiting, Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), the connection is complicated but genuine, actually breathing honesty while it waits for an ingenious circumstance to make the romance right.
Change is in the air as the footman-become-butler, Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier), is revealed to be gay, experiencing the wrath that England had for such unworthy targets years ago as Oscar Wilde. However, the film suggests Britain is slowly on its way to justice just as the working class is on its way to equality.
Yet as the film so rightly shows, the aristocrats will try to hold out in the face of the winds of change. Happily for us, we enjoy the waning days of monarchy and a bit of anarchy—a fine mix for entertainment and modernism, both to become major cultural players in the latter half of that century right to our own new century. Although inequality exists, it has a very short life to go.
John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.rr.com