Downton Abbey Crumbles on Screen
My wife and I were great fans of this TV series which we thought was wonderfully acted and directed, realistically taking a family of minor nobility through the eventual decline of inherited wealth. It was a classic lesson in the weakness of class as a differentiator.
Now the movie has emerged to great popularity, so for the first time in a year or so, we went to the cinema. (The tickets are provided by machine, there is a full bar, several dining areas with hot food, and so on. Yet the place, with ten screens, at 7 pm on a Friday, was almost vacant. The movie theater response to current technology is like manufacturing an electronic buggy whip. It’s in advance, but it has no use. Is anyone really investing good money in theater chains?)
All the same (fine) actors are present, but the story lines (primarily, an expensive visit by the King and Queen for a night) are trite, predictable, and compressed. The King’s staff tries to usurp the house’s staff, who retaliate completely implausibly, and win in the end. There is an obligatory subplot involving the gay butler, Mr. Barrow, which is amateurish in its predictable journey, and ends with a bathos-drenched, “Will they every accept us?” “Well, who knows, fifty years ago no one though man could fly.” The pregnant daughter is successful in preventing her husband from attending the prince on a three-month trip. Mr. Branson falls for a pseudo-maid who will actually inherit great wealth. And on and on and on, as obvious as a ham sandwich.
Worst of all, the exquisite Maggie Smith and her foil, Penelope Wilton, have been loaded down with so many bons mots that their exchanges lose their sting. You just sit there waiting for the next. It’s not unlike a David Mamet play where the actors can scarcely breathe between the brilliant lines, which are utterly impossible to conceive in normal repartee.
Michael Engler directed this mess. It was simply made to make money, not to provide any insights or moral discoveries or any great drama at all. (In fact, these royal visits often bankrupted some of the aristocracy, and some kept permanent “royal residences” within their estates should the royal ever deign to visit. We never find out how the usually strapped Earl of Grantham paid for all this. Everyone is remarkably calm despite the great risks.)
My one high note: The cinematography is award-winningly gorgeous. The English train stations, the double decker trams, the authentic looking mail vehicles and courier uniforms—superb. And the most splendid scene of all was when the Hussars, complete with horse artillery, parade for the king’s inspection, at slow trot, moving across a huge expanse of property, all in proper formation. I don’t know how long it took, or how many “takes” were required for this scene, but it was magnificent. Ben Smithard was the cinematographer and, for me, is the star of the show.
In total, the production reminded me of a favorite vacation spot you want to return to each year even though the service has deteriorated and there’s nothing new there any more.