I rarely keep up with popular television shows. I still haven’t watched “The Sopranos,” let alone “The Boys,” so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I haven’t watched the beloved TV show “Downton Abbey” yet. Of course, I’m well aware of the program’s existence and certain characters on it, it’s impossible to be ignorant of a show that gets this popular. But for the most part, me and the characters on “Downton Abbey” have been two boats that get close to each other but never directly meet. That changed with the theatrical feature film “Downton Abbey,” which takes the characters of the PBS show and takes them to the big screen in an adventure that I watched despite not having any prior exposure to the residents of the titular residence.
Though clearly geared at longtime viewers of the show, “Downton Abbey” dabbles in such broadly defined characters that even newbies like myself can easily grasp the character dynamics on display within a few minutes of screentime. The Crawley family, which includes Robert (Hugh Bonneville) and the sharp-tongued Violet (Maggie Smith), rules over the Downton Abbey estate which also consists of a large staff of waiters and cooks. The establishment is preparing for a visit from the Queen and King of England and such an occasion means that former Downton Abbey butler Charles Carson (Jim Carter) is called out of retirement for “one last ride” like he’s the butler version of John Rambo.
From there, a whole slew of plotlines transpires that include Violet’s rivalry with Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) and the various cooks and waiters of Downton Abbey engaging in a war with the egotistical staff that the King & Queen have brought along for their visit. The latter storyline revolving around a coup d’etat against snooty chefs and butlers delivers probably the most entertaining part of “Downton Abbey.” The antics here, which include Jim Carter delivering the word “tomfoolery” with 110% seriousness, prove to be mighty entertaining while it’s simply a lot easier to engage with these cooks and butlers as relatable human beings rather than the wealthier aloof members of the establishment.
Plotlines dealing with the Crawley’s are rarely grating to watch but they also rarely make for good drama, even by the standards of ritzy soap operas. At least Violet is good for some snappy dialogue and her performer, Maggie Smith, demonstrates why she’s an acting legend in her performance in a pivotal climactic emotional moment. Here, she manages to create poignancy in the middle of proceedings devoid of depth, a feat as impressive as watching someone conjure up a fire out of nowhere while being in the middle of the arctic. Aside from Violet, though, the Crawley’s are a snooze as characters, though that’s not entirely on the writing or performances of the characters themselves.
Instead, much fo the problem lies in how screenwriter Julian Fellowes approach to creating drama in a cinematic setting doesn’t seem to have adjusted much from how the “Downton Abbey” TV show crafted drama. In that program, conflicts had to be resolved quickly in the span of a single episode and the “Downton Abbey” movie similarly runs through an array of possibly life-altering conflicts in a rapid manner as if they’re worried about a nonexistent forty-four-minute time limit. There’s an entire plot thread involving a potential assassination of the King that just comes and goes in a hurried fashion like an Autumn breeze rather than one of the primary characters in the story being slaughtered.
Other plot details, like one character finding an underground gay bar and the delayed wedding plans of two Downton Abbey staffers, blaze right by in a rushed fashion. Downton Abbey throws so many story details out into the audience yet so few of them manage to stick around long enough to leave an impact. An absolutely stacked cast and some pretty production design manage to keep the proceedings watchable and I’m sure the whole endeavor will work like gangbusters for “Downton Abbey” die-hards. Unfortunately, my own first visit to Downton Abbey left me disappointed how a movie that tries so much can manage to come up so short.
“People” magazine recently reported critics more familiar with the show are saying fans are “in for a treat.” And Leslie Felperin from “The Hollywood Reporter” said fans could make a return trip to Downton Abbey in the future.
“Don’t be surprised if there are more films to come, especially since this satisfyingly dense deep dive into Downton-land is clearly getting the infrastructure ready to keep the story going,” she wrote, and acknowledged that a few of the series’ regulars may not return in any possible sequels.
“Downton Abbey” opens in theaters everywhere Sept. 20.
Douglas Laman is a film critic, who, when not watching movies, attends Collin College, hangs out with friends… watches movies. For more of his work and ramblings, visit his website at www.landofthenerds.blogspot.com.