How fitting that “Downton Abbey” – the movie version of the tony British soap opera whose first episode opened with a telegram about the sinking of the Titanic – begins with the mailing of a letter.
As the camera follows the journey of that humble envelope and its contents from London to Yorkshire, via train, car and, finally, silver platter, we are treated to a vision of the titular grand manor: the sprawling country home of the aristocratic Crawley family, rising up to greet us like a great, beautiful beast awakening from a slumber of three years. (The series went off the air in 2016.)
This is architecture as litmus test.
If the mere sight of that building – the locus of so much melodrama over six seasons of stories about the wealthy upstairs toffs and their downstairs servants – is insufficient to stir any sense of anticipation, then maybe this isn’t the movie for you. Oh, you won’t exactly be lost if you’re a newbie.
The plot-heavy feature film is mostly intelligible to “Abbey” virgins save for a relationship or two that take their sweet time explaining themselves to latecomers.
Pro-tip: How exactly did Tom Branson (Allen Leech), the working-class Irish Catholic and socialist who is clearly out of his element among the Crawleys, become a member of this patrician family? The former chauffeur married into it; his wife, a Crawley daughter, is now dead.
Mostly, the events of the movie are triggered by that letter, which informs Branson’s father-in-law, Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), that the king and queen of England (Simon Jones and Geraldine James) are coming to visit Downton.
This throws the entire household into a tizzy of excitement, precipitating amusing – if also a bit silly – events concerning the rivalry between Downton’s homegrown staff and the interloping royal attendants.
There also are some more serious matters stuffed into this already overstuffed goose of a narrative: an assassination attempt; a mild scandal (averted) involving Downton’s gay butler (Robert James-Collier), who, for the duration of the movie, is pushed out of his job by the now-retired Mr. Carson (Jim Carter); and a foofaraw over inheritance between Lord Grantham’s mother, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), and a distant cousin (Imelda Staunton).
That’s a lot of goings-on for one movie, and it isn’t the half it. But eventfulness and machination have always been the hallmark of “Downton Abbey,” not acting. With the exception of Dame Maggie, whose acerbic character spends much of her time – probably a little too much of her time – dropping caustic zingers, there isn’t much in the way of thespianism here.
Everyone looks and sounds and dresses marvelously. “Downton Abbey” is eye and ear candy of the highest order: rich and delicious, but not especially nutritious.
Of course, if series creator Julian Fellowes, who wrote the zippy screenplay (ably directed by Michael Engler), were really interested in the implicit class conflicts at the heart of the story – interested beyond lip service, that is – there might be a real tale to tell.
As it is, “Downton Abbey,” the movie, feels a little too in love with rank and privilege. Set in 1927, the film feels like it is just as hyperventilating about the royal visit as Downton’s staff is, maybe even more so.
And that’s all fine and harmless. Who am I to tell you how to spend two hours of your time? If the Crawleys are good enough for Tom Branson – a Republican sympathizer who is briefly suspected of wishing harm upon the king and queen – they’re good enough for me.
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