While the world had a collective orgasm over the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in May 2018, Julian Fellowes would have been enjoying his own private celebration. After six highly successful seasons of the TV series, Downton Abbey, Fellowes could see the Royal nuptials creating a highly receptive environment for his next project, Downton Abbey – the movie.
The creator of Downton Abbey is not your typical Hollywood producer. His full name is Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes. When he’s not writing novels or screenplays he sits on the Tory benches in the House of Lords as Baron Fellowes of West Stafford. Fellowes is ‘to the manor born’, although he has never lived in the grand style of the fictional Crawley family. Those days were gone long before he moved to Hollywood in 1981, where he chased small roles acting in American TV programs.
Moving back to Britain, Fellowes became a jack-of-all-trades in the film and television industry. He wrote, he acted, he even hosted a game show for the BBC. A turning point came when he won an Academy Award for best screenplay for Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001) – a movie that now resembles a rehearsal for the greater project, Downton Abbey. The series would run from 2010 – 2015, earning a mention in the Guinness Book of Recordsfor “the highest critical review ratings for a TV show”.
I made it through 5/6 seasons of Downton Abbey, and may one day watch it to the end. It was as moreish as a bag of chips. Another episode anyone? Maybe one more, it’s only 3 am.
The dialogue was crisp, the characters sympathetic, the acting excellent. In the background was the methodical tick-tock of history. The series began in 1912, on the day after the sinking of the Titanic, and ended in 1925, as the stately homes of England felt the economic pinch.
Among TV series Downton Abbey was a jolly good thing, so why would they want to reassemble the cast three years later and make a feature film? There may have been a element of ‘unfinished business’, or nostalgia, but one suspects the simple answer is: “money”.
As a general rule movies based on successful TV series are hugely disappointing. The characters we have come to know in depth and detail become caricatures of themselves. The need for a storyline big enough to include everyone forces a crude condensation of relationships we are used to seeing fleshed out over an entire season.
I wish I could say Downtown Abbey is the exception to this rule, but it’s a resounding confirmation. The director, Michael Engler, has spent virtually his entire career working in TV, a background that usually suggests a high degree of competence and little inspiration. If the film survives as a light – very light – entertainment this is largely due to Fellowes’s skill as a writer of dialogue, and our familiarity with the protagonists. The entire plot revolves around a visit by King George V and Queen Mary, who will be spending a night at Downton Abbey as part of a tour of the countryside.
This great honour sets pulses races both upstairs and downstairs, and leaves ample room for comedy. Along the way there is an assassination plot, a family crisis or three, a twinge of mortality, a pregnancy, some petty larceny, a glimpse of homosexual night life in northern climes, and a new romance. That may sound like a full menu but there’s a lot more crammed into the mix. In brief, an entire season in two hours flat.
The charm of Downton Abbey as a series was the way it made a bunch of English aristocrats into credible, sympathetic human beings. In most portrayals of the English upper classes they are snobs, twits or eccentrics, but the affection audiences felt for the Crawleys made the class system seem as quaint and ornamental as the furniture. Everyone was so thoroughly decent they apparently deserved their privileged existences. The servants were devoted to their masters, and the masters dealt benevolently with the servants.
It may sound ridiculous, but to anyone who wasn’t lost to the Marxist worldview, the Crawleys were highly attractive figures. No-one was more compelling than Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess, whose lofty attitudes did little to conceal her good heart.
In the movie, this rosy picture of aristocratic life begins to feel like a propaganda campaign on behalf of the monarchy. The Crawleys are such naturally superior beings that even Tom Branson (Allen Leech), the Irish republican who has married into the family, declares his affection in word and deed. In a world of vulgar, populist leaders with funny hair, one can understand the appeal of this vision of an orderly, hierarchical society ruled over by civilised beings – but it feels like a sales pitch on behalf of traditions that now lie in ruins. Those old-fashioned English values are hardly adequate to cope with the twin disasters that afflict England today, namely Brexit and Steve Smith.
The Crawleys and the servants that we meet in this film are shadows of the characters in the TV series. Some viewers may even wonder if their original admiration for the family and its retainers was misplaced. Most, I suspect, will be able to skim over the surface and take some pleasure from this shallow exercise. But don’t be dazzled by the silverware and crystal. It’s a very ordinary port served after a sumptuous meal.
Directed by Michael Engler
Written by Julian Fellowes
Starring Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith, Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern, Allen Leech, Laura Carmichael, Penelope Wilton, Jim Carter, Phyllis Logan, Lesley Nicol, Sophie McShera, Joanne Froggatt, Imedla Staunton, Tuppence Middleton, Robert James-Collier
UK, rated PG, 122 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 14 September, 2019