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Downton Abbey

Released 2019. Director: Michael Engler

DOWNTON ABBEY IS MORE POPULAR THAN ROCKETMAN. THE MOVIE ADAPTATION of the TV series trounced Elton John’s biopic at the box office, raking in over $194 million worldwide. The Crawley household clearly has a sizable fan base around the globe waiting eagerly for a big screen version of their ongoing saga.

If you’re not a fan, the movie will not convert you. If you’ve enjoyed the TV series, this is a supersized gift. As a feature-length episode, the movie adaptation follows the TV formula faithfully. A smart decision to reward fans with what they’re familiar with, instead of altering and tinkering with a successful template, which has spelled doom for some other TV-to-movie transitions in the past.

The movie also doesn’t care to offer any tiny bit of recap but dives straight in, picking up the strands sometime after the final episode went to air in 2015. There are simply too many characters and storylines for a flashback; so if you’ve come to the movie as a Downton virgin, good luck.

Here we go. A letter arrives at the stately home from the palace announcing an impending visit by King George V and Queen Mary. A royal visit! Immediately the entire Downton clan, from Lord and Lady Grantham down to the cooks and valets go into a tizzy, especially the kitchen staff under Mrs Patmore, who proceeds to place a pantry order large enough to feed a village.

Just like its TV origin, the movie buzzes and hums with a flow of energy buoyed by John Lunn’s expansive signature tune, as the servants whizz along hallways, up and down stairs, swing around corners, giving and receiving instructions, always in a hurry. Upstairs, the lord and ladies sit down dressed in their finery sipping tea from fine china, fret about the estate, the obligatory social events and just sometimes, indulge in the latest gossip.

Several subplots spin out of this main story of the royal visit, including an assassination attempt, theft in the house, an estranged cousin and her heir. All these activities are there to make sure everybody in the large cast has something to do. Even so, screen time can never be equitable and some characters are given short shrift unfortunately. Michelle Dockery, Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Allen Leech and a few others get a bigger bite of the script, while Matthew Goode makes a late, brief appearance and Lily James is absent altogether.

Period drama is not a hot genre like, say, superheroes or romantic comedies. Yet Downtown Abbey has surpassed the most optimistic expectations. Julian Fellowes’ vision of early 20th century lifestyle of the aristocracy and those who serve them adapts superbly from television to cinema. Cinematography and production design are polished and visually addictive. The pacing is a gentle trot, the editing crisp and the dialogue sparks with occasional zingers.

This is period drama that’s not stuffy but snappy. An expert blend of soap, scandals, pomp, tragedies enacted by characters drawn just enough to make you watch, helped enormously by a well-chosen cast of young and established actors who bring conviction to their roles with such ease and charm.

The movie, like the TV series, doesn’t pretend to suggest deep insight or discussion into the class system or the politics of its era. This is not something to hold against the production. What Fellowes and Michael Engler have done is to assemble their characters like chess pieces on an exquisite board and move them into a dramatic formation. Everyone has his or her place in this grand display of privilege, loyalty and ambition. In the end, it’s always about acceptance, manners and basic decency. And we could do with more of that.


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