Monday, October 7, 2019

Downton Abbey, the movie

Downton Abbey – I decided to see this movie even though I hadn't, and still haven't, seen a single episode of the BBC/PBS series it was based on. I'm mostly familiar with it from social media memes featuring Maggie Smith, an actress I always enjoy whether the movie she's in is all that great or not. Deciding whether this movie is all that great is perhaps above my pay grade, since I spent a lot of it not knowing who was who or how it all fit together. So I'll keep my review very brief and extend a "for what it's worth" advisory while doing so.

For what it's worth, I thought this movie tried to do too many things at one time, and didn't have enough time to do all of them very well. I thought the story was basically misshapen, with either a lot of anticlimax or, more charitably, a lot of stories being resolved considerably after the dramatic energy peaked. I'm all for complex characters, but I wasn't really engaged with, and in some cases positively struggled to sympathize with, some of the point-of-view characters; maybe the problem is they needed to be more complex than their screen time allowed.

Finally, as far as the wish-fulfillment aspect of this TV series turned film franchise goes, I'm just not feeling the nostalgia some people apparently do for an age during which household staff couldn't travel anywhere without their employers' permission, felt lucky to get a half-day off every two weeks and were unemployable if they separated from their position without a glowing recommendation. I never pegged myself for the kind of person who would root for organized labor, but the way the Crawleys' lives of luxury stood on the stooped shoulders of a staff who, as individuals, they mostly didn't even notice, didn't do wonders for the feeling in my lower back.

Looking at it one storyline at a time, it was a cute movie. The young butler's side adventure in the (at that time, and we're talking George V era) seedy gay subculture didn't seem relevant to anything else in the film, and I wondered what kind of future he had going for him considering that the old retired butler staged a coup on him and pushed him out ahead of the King and Queen's visit. The merchant-class Irish widowed son-in-law of the Crawleys had a nice little romance with a lady's companion who actually had hopes to inherit quite a fortune - which, as any reader of Austen knows, is just the touch of good luck that ensures a happy ending to any courtship between young people of good breeding and character. Some gent struggles with how to refuse an invitation from the king to accompany his royal son on an international trip, because said gent's wife will be due to give birth around that time; the dilemma works itself out without anyone being beheaded, which is surely a sign that the 1920s was a relatively enlightened period. Also, somebody tries to take a shot at the king, but the Irish republican son-in-law chooses just the right female member of the household to help him foil the plot, in a touching display of his dedication, if not to royalism, at least to the Crawleys. And so forth.

There are a lot of plot lines in this story, and as worked out individually, some of them actually help the structure of the movie keep its shape. But some of them don't. In my opinion, everything after the royal dinner at Downtown Abbey could have, and maybe should have, been cut out just for architectural reasons, and information paid out after that point either kept for the viewer to deduce for him- or herself or pushed up the agenda a bit.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Foiling the assassination plot, which was as close as this movie came to being a thriller. (2) The below-stairs mutiny that cut the royal staff out and allowed the Downton staff to serve their Majesties, culminating in one footman's mortifying "aria" – a breathtaking moment of disaster in which I actually entered into the manners of the time. (3) Pretty much every sarcastic exchange between Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton as, respectively, the spirit of all stuffiness and her more progressively minded relative. (I would probably have to watch the TV series to find out exactly how they're related, so I'll leave it at that.)

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