Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Dearest Review: Upstairs, Downstairs

When the global phenomenon known as Downton Abbey wrapped up its six season run on television a few years back, devoted fans (including yours truly) of the Crawley family and all those who lived and worked within the storied walls of the title abode were more or less quite satisfied with how everything turned out for their favorite characters. There was a couple weddings, a birth, some burgeoning romances and various other "happily ever afters", culminating with (as it should be) Dame Maggie Smith's deliciously droll Dowager Countess getting in the last word.

But as is increasingly the case in this age of remakes, reboots and revivals, there was more to be said, apparently, as we have now been invited back to Downton Abbey, this time at a cinema near you. And, not surprisingly considering practically the entire cast and creative team (led by creator Julian Fellowes) have reunited for the big screen debut, returning viewers will be treated to a super-size version of all the things they loved about the multiple award-winning (including a Dearie) period drama-slash-highbrow soap opera. But even long-time Abbey addicts admit that there were a few faults in the foundation of the august manor along the way (repetitive storylines, questionable motivations, abrupt resolutions) and, alas, some of that did creep into the film as well.

And that brings us to Downton Abbey: The Movie - The Good, The Bad and The Dowager*

*Since nothing about Downton Abbey is ugly, and because: Dame Maggie Smith. 

Wilde times
The Good:
  • Expect lots of goosebumps early in the film, from the familiar strains of John Lunn's iconic theme to the moment when the Abbey first comes majestically into view. The giddiness just increases as each familiar face, from both upstairs and downstairs, makes their first appearance.
  • Once the plot – the King and Queen are coming to Downton! – is established, the story unfolds leisurely, and Fellowes' efficient script gives each of the twenty-some original cast members at least a moment or two to shine. Not even the Star Trek movies could claim that most of the time.
  • The scenes of the loyal Downton service staff reclaiming their turf from the snobbish royal entourage – a rebellion led by Downton super-couple Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) – are a hoot, providing the film with an unexpected but welcome dose of non-Dowager humor. Choice moments are provided by a flummoxed Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), the take-no-guff Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and the always reliable for a laugh Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle).
  • Robert James-Collier's gay butler Thomas Barrow was one of the few characters to end the series without a romantic interest, but that is resolved satisfactorily here in a nicely done subplot that involves a handsome King's Royal Dresser (Max Brown) and even takes us to a London speakeasy with (shocking!) man-on-man dancing.
  • And of course, aficionados of "period porn" will have much to revel in with all the late-'20s fashions and bobbed hairdos of the upper classes to feast upon.

Irish eyes
The Bad:
  • Allen Leech's Tom Branson spent the latter part of the series either flirting with or fending off various thoroughly modern Millies, yet he quickly finds a true love connection here... too quickly, actually. And that's when he's not busy thwarting an assassination attempt or inadvertently saving a royal marriage. We love our Irish chauffeur-turned-Crawley confidante, but his cinematic plate seems awfully full, particularly in comparison to his onscreen in-laws, Lord and Lady Grantham (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern), both surprisingly given not much to do beyond commenting on what's going on around them.
  • Oh Daisy... Apologies if Sophie McShera's kitchen maid is a favorite of yours, because she's never been one of mine, and nothing she does in the film – bitching about the royals, making eyes with a hunky plumber in front of her fiancĂ©, goofy footman Andy (Michael C. Fox) – makes me change my mind. You say spirited, I say shrill; thankfully Lesley Nicol's feisty Mrs. Patmore is usually nearby to put her back in her place.
  • Poor Edith... Laura Carmichael's eternally put-upon middle daughter (the "Jan Brady" of this Crawley bunch) finally got some happiness in the series finale – married to a Marquess (Harry Hadden-Paton) no less! – but she's back to being miserable again here, most absurdly with... an ill-fitting party dress. At least her husband is around for most of the action; Lady Mary's Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode) is MIA for most of the running time.
  • Also missing in action from the series: Lily James' vivacious Lady Rose, Samantha Bond's meddlesome Lady Rosamund and the Dowager's feuding servants Sprat (Jeremy Swift) and Denker (Sue Johnston).
  • Yes, a big event like Carrie Bradshaw's wedding or the death of Captain Kirk is needed to bridge the gap when a TV show transitions to the movies, and a royal visit certainly fills that bill for Downton Abbey. But I feel a more personal story for the Crawley family would have been even better, although the final scenes hint at just that as a possibility for a sequel, a sequel that is looking more and more likely considering the film's surprisingly robust opening weekend.
There is nothing like this Dame
The Dowager:
  • As Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, Dame Maggie Smith has won three Emmys, four Screen Actors Guild Awards and a Golden Globe, and with Downton Abbey now a movie she may even be up for an Academy Award (fittingly, as her last Oscar nomination was for Fellowes' Gosford Park).
  • Known for her perfect delivery of such meme-ably classic quotes as "What is a weekend?" and "Don't be a defeatist dear, it's very middle class", the Dowager continues to not disappoint with a few choice zingers, most aimed at her frequent target, frenemy Cousin Isobel (Penelope Wilton), such as this exchange: "Oh Violet. After all these years you still astonish me." "Oh good, I'm glad I'm a revelation and not a disappointment."
  • Fellowes often pitted the Dowager against those who flew in the face of English tradition; the prevailing theme of Downton Abbey has always been the relevance of such in the rapidly changing times of the early twentieth century. In the film she faces off with a heretofore unmentioned Crawley cousin, Lady Maud Bagshaw (played by Imelda Staunton, wife of Jim Carter, a.k.a. Downton's Mr. Carson), who just so happens to be the Queen's lady-in-waiting. It all feels a tad contrived, especially since their tiff is over Violet's objections to Maud making her longtime maid and companion, Lucy Smith (played by Tuppence Middleton, which is just like the most British name ever) her sole heir. Naturally, there's a secret involved (and no, it is not that "companion" in this case is a euphemism for "lesbian lover", although the thought did cross my mind) that, once revealed, makes everything hunky-dory.
  • Thankfully, this is not all of the Dowager's story in the film, as is revealed in a memorable scene (truly one of the best in Downton history) between her and her heir apparent, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery, as prickly fabulous as ever), that I won't go into details about save to say: bring a period-appropriate lace hanky with you, you'll need it.

I confess, I have no idea how someone who has never seen Downton Abbey will view this movie, but as for anyone who has visited before, I'll paraphrase Petula Clark: you'll forget all your troubles, forget all your cares when you see Downton, no finer place for sure. Downton. Everything's waiting for you...

Dearest Rating: 7/10

Review by Kirby Holt, Movie Dearest creator, editor and head writer.

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