Warning: spoilers ahead for the Downton Abbey movie.
To quote something that Lord Grantham might say, while patting the head of cute pup Teo and staring into the drawing room fire: This is written more in sorrow than anger.
Downton Abbey, the movie, is not the movie the TV show deserves. What it is, is a reassuring game of hopscotch, a set of smiling cameos, a group of much-loved friends popping their heads into the spotlight for a two-hour-plus game of heavily indulgent no-consequences.
What Downton Abbey the movie is not is the TV show; it made this fan miss that 52-episode gallop of drama and extreme salty silliness awfully. The movie is the best and worst of the TV show squashed into a bizarre two-hour film, which is a kind of senses-numbing luxurious bath.
Not even the most violent Hollywood blockbuster, or the scariest moment of a horror movie, has made this viewer quite so anxious as the ball at the end of the Downton Abbey movie, which for reasons never made entirely clear (or at least plausible) is not held at Downton Abbey itself.
On and on the characters dance, the music clearly signaling we are near the end of this exercise in safe nostalgia, and I was fretting: “Why are you not all dancing at Downton? Please can we go back to Downton! Now!"
Everything about this movie creaks. Dame Maggie Smith’s lines—the lines you cannot, must not fuck up; there should be a law against fucking up any words spoken by Maggie Smith in character—are hackneyed, dreary, cliched, and blunted. Everything the Dowager Countess says should be a zinger, a verbal scythe.
The movie sees her and sparring partner cousin Isobel (Penelope Wilton) half-heartedly exchange barbs that aren’t really barbs. They’re not that good. Every single line is underwhelming, as spoken by Dame Maggie Smith. Terrible.
What happened to the likes of: “First electricity, now telephones. Sometimes I feel as if I were living in an H.G. Wells novel”; and “What is a weekend?”
Lady Mary and Lady Edith are at peace. Now, OK, they made up in the TV show, but the movie surely gives license for some intra-sister bitchery. Nothing. Just hands on shoulders and ‘How are you?’s.
Downton, the TV show, often featured the silliest plots that would collapse under their own absurdity, like the mystery of ‘Patrick Crawley’ in his bandages and claims to be the Crawley heir—despite long being suspected of drowning in the Titanic.
The film’s lunatic plot centers around a guy that befriends Branson, and who Branson suspects of something. This plot seems to begin as possible flirtation, but no. Instead, Branson never asks this person who he is or what he's doing.
Downton the TV show often asked us to accept plot developments and character behavior that made no sense. We accepted this because part of Downton Abbey's charm is its defiant daffiness. The film does the same with this storyline in the movie, because there is just no way you wouldn't ask a total stranger who you kept meeting in a pub to swap mysterious sentences about mysterious things without asking them, pretty quickly: “Who are you? What do you want from me? What are you doing?”
This nonsense leads to an attempted assassination of the King in Downton village. Of course it does. Remember, the Spanish flu. Remember Mr. Pamuk. Downton, you be you.
We should be grateful for Downton's sporadic absurdist tendencies, because the film's main plot is a pointless snooze, a long ramble to nowhere. The King and Queen are coming to Downton. Cool. But don't get too excited. There is precious little intrigue here, except the state of relations of a couple we have never met before.
There is one of those marriage/inheritance stories, which becomes a kind of wordy puzzle with a lot of whispering in corners, even more bad lines for Dame Maggie Smith (seriously, I am introducing legislation to make this a crime), and not much else.
Poor Mr. Bates gets nothing to do. Nothing. Everyone else has glancing attempts at storylines. Mr. Bates just stands around.
The main point about the King and Queen's visit seems to bring the below stairs staff to the fore, as they are set up in conflict with the King and Queen's staff. This has momentsnof fun, as Mrs. Patmore and Mr. and Mrs. Carson bristle and scheme, but the plot itself becomes a lot of clanking fuss with people being sent to London, locked in rooms, and given sleeping medication.
The whole film is like an extended hit song, where most characters are given their moment to shine, but in a rushed, unsatisfying manner. Anna gets to stop the dressmaker who's a secret pilferer (and make sure Edith gets her dress finished on time!). Mr. Carson comes back to save the day. Lady Mary says “oh granny” a lot, and Matthew Goode jumps butchly out of a car.
The show's creator and writer Julian Fellowes has always loved process alongside plot, and so the opening sequence where we follow the royal visit letter to Downton Abbey is immaculate, period-perfect, and coupled beautifully with John Lunn's wonderful theme that is the real king of the whole movie. Every time it swells, so does your heart.
Fellowes loves to get the detail right, and likes everything in its place. There’s a right way to set the cutlery, a right way to address so and so. Fellowes also clearly really loves Branson, as he is more central to the movie than Lord and Lady Grantham (who still does little more than just look at “Rahhbert” with a wide smile).
The film’s most compelling story belongs to Thomas, the gay footman-now-butler. In the movie, he ends up at a proto-gay club, and gets arrested. The possibility of some kind of live-able future is accorded to him.
Fellowes has followed Thomas’ tortured story perhaps the most carefully of all the characters, and he is the only character to escape the King’s visit nonsense.
The future is the most tantalizing invisible theme of the film, just as it was in the TV show. We are watching Downton now; and in our minds we wonder what happens to Downton as the decades tumble towards us. The film makes this explicit with its final conversation between Lady Mary and the Dowager Countess, in which the latter soberly confronts her mortality while placing Downton’s mantle in Lady Mary’s hands.
And then Mr. and Mrs Carson leave the Abbey—phew, we are back at Downton for the final shot!—and their final words ponder the future too, and it’s an uncertain one. For all the accusations that Fellowes trades in hallowed nostalgia, the final note of this aimless reunion is far from cozy. It’s a splash of cold water. Change will come, change will happen.
The nature of that change could give Downton Abbey a fresh lease of life were Fellowes and his colleagues brave enough to rip up their own rulebook. The film is boring, and kind of pointless, because it just serves us very stylishly reheated offcuts of what we have come to love.
What if the next movie, or even a TV show, took Downton Abbey forward into all those uncertain years? This fan’s devotion to Downton isn’t restricted to the familiar cast, especially as the film reduces them to a series of greatest-hits recyclers.
The magic of Downton is the house, and what the house means. Furnish that house with old characters and new characters; show the history of class and social change in Britain through Downton. It will open up the story again, and open up the characters again. Look at what The Crown has done; its new season will show a new cast taking us forward as the royal family ages and times change.
Should it return again in one form or another (and it really could), the nostalgia and silliness of Downton doesn’t have to be jettisoned completely. They are Downton. But free the house and its residents from the aspic they have become stuck in. The Downton movie shows what happens when a franchise gets stuck, but it doesn’t have to be the end of the story.
One thing we know: the house survives today, so take us through history to its contemporary destiny.