Friday, September 20, 2019

Things Will Be Great When You're 'Downton Abbey'

“At my age, one must ration one’s excitement."

I'm no Anglophile, so Downton Abbey the series wasn't something I felt an immediate need to view. I believe it was well after the second season had premiered in the U.S. that I, on a rainy day, decided I needed something suitable to watch while cozying up with some tea and knitting, and binged the first season on Netflix.

It was easy to get sucked in. It certainly looked like a stodgy PBS Masterpiece Theater series, but it was a pure soap opera at its heart, complete with tropes like treachery, sibling rivalry, and illicit sex. By the third episode, when Lady Mary's (Michelle Dockery) super vagina killed a Turkish diplomat, I knew I'd follow this show wherever it went.

And it went to some pretty stupid places! Miraculous paralysis recovery! Imposter cousins! Pointless murder trials! The introduction of Lady "Scrappy Doo" Rose (Lily James)! Downton Abbey may have presented as posh, but it was actually the best kind of trash, at its heart merely a fantasy predicated on the fairy tale notion that the English aristocracy were benevolent and loving, and their devoted servants wanted nothing more than to please them. Forever.

And it may very well go on forever, if the hints laid out by Downton Abbey the movie are any indication. I'm sure existing fans will have no problem with that, but I find it hard to believe anyone who hasn't seen the show will have any burning desire to see this movie. Which isn't to say it's inaccessible--the royal visit plotline is simple enough--but I can't imagine a newcomer giving a flying fig about the developing romances of characters who only get about 15 minutes of screentime.

And that's a general problem when you spin off a movie from a TV show. Somehow you've got to convey years of character development into two hours for those who are just coming aboard. This shorthand can thus reduce a character to their most identifiable trait--which is often their most annoying. (Looking at you, sour Mary.)

Taking place mere years after the series finale, the story finds things at Downton pretty much where we left them, though some characters have inexplicably returned after making a big show of leaving. (Daisy (Sophie McShera) is back in the kitchen, and Tom Branson (Allen Leech) has apparently given up on that new start in America.) A letter informs the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) the King and Queen will be touring Yorkshire, and they plan to stay overnight at Downton. I guess that's how the royals make a reservation.

(I had no idea who the King of England was in 1927, and it's never explicitly stated in the film--and why should it? I am sure the majority of Downton fans know this stuff. Still, I had to look it up. It was King George V and Queen Mary, grandparents of the current Queen Elizabeth.)

This news of course sends both upstairs and downstairs into a tizzy. Will the staff actually be able to serve the King and Queen? Or will they be cook-blocked by the royal entourage? Will Irish Tom be able to control himself in front of the royals? Will Edith's (Laura Carmichael) dress arrive in time for the ball? This is the kind of drama all Downtown Abbey fans have come to expect.

Also expected and delivered: lots of period costume porn; plenty of fancy food porn; and of course the ever present interior design porn that is Downton Abbey itself. The transfer from television to the cinema has its advantages. There are some nice aerial shots, and the big screen can better convey the sheer size and grandeur of Downton Abbey. And yet, the movie still feels like a television episode, albeit perhaps more like one of the series's standalone "Christmas specials." Scenes rarely last more than a few minutes, with a constant need to pop between the many character's and personal dramas.

This means that, as always, there's never enough time spent with Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess, the comedic heart of the series, and really the only thing that has remained consistently entertaining throughout its whole run. She and Isobel Crawley (Penelope Whilton) continue to toss the kinds of pointed barbs that can only be shared by people who actually love and respect each other. (Comparisons to both Machiavelli and Caligula are made of each other, over after dinner port in the drawing room. Downton Abbey in a nutshell.) If turning the show into a movie garners Smith an Oscar for the same role she won an Emmy for--twice!--then it will have been worth it.

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