It’s the endless costume changes, the ornate extravagance, the pastoral idylls and the Christmas Village quaintness of it all.
There’s the jewelry, the flapper bangs, the scrubbing, trimming, boiling, polishing and smug sub-minimum wage satisfaction of the servant classes at having done a menial job to perfection. And we cannot leave out the bemused smirks of the ruling bluebloods when they realize no one’s there to pour their third cup of tea, but they can manage perfectly well on their own, thank you.
Class conscious without the class conflict, or much of it, deference to one’s “betters,” we get the idea that even the “betters” are cowed in the presence of royalty — “You’ve seen their majesties. Let that be enough!”
The withering put-downs, the sense of place and propriety, upstairs — “Royal women are not meant to grin like Cheshire cats!”– and downstairs — “I will pour wine for the Queen’s sweet lips!” — it’s all here.
And the snobbery! Oh, the snobbery!
But at some point, you abandon the eye-rolling archness of it all, on orders of your opthalmologist. You stop gritting your teeth at this to-the-manner-born soap opera and its celebration of noblesse oblige among the English in-bred, and just give yourself over to “Downton Abbey,” the big screen epilogue to the hit BBC and PBS TV series.
Julian Fellowes’ TV event becomes a big screen extravaganza that does justice to the series and fills a larger screen with its scope, but little more.
Hopes that he might conjure up something more like the tighter and funnier Robert Altman film he scripted that inspired “Downton,” “Gosford Park,” fall by the wayside. Dreams that we might see the Crowleys, Lord and Lady Grantham and the rest, coping with say, the comeuppance of The Great Depression, or pitching in to lend land and labor to “Their Finest Hour” — the World War II years, will have to wait for a future sequel.
No. Here, we’re treated a giggling reminder that it’s Maggie Smith’s world, and these other toffs are here just to provide mares and stallions — clothes-horses all — for her to insult. And that’s what made the damned thing fun in the first place.
Fellowes concocted a bloated, melodramatic story that services every character, pairs many up with fresh foils and puts everybody on the dance floor for the finale.
Finally, after all these years, we get a dose of what the lesser nobility go to all this trouble, all this expense, what they kept these immodest, immense houses for — the chance of a royal visit.
That’s the ingenious crucible here, the arrival of notice that the King and Queen (George V and Queen Mary) will be making a tour of Yorkshire, and they need a place to crash for a night or so.
The flurry of activity that sets in motion, the pride that wells up in family, staff and the village that depends on the Great House for so much of its livelihood, make a marvelously compact stage for all the dramas that have played out here in the years on TV that led up to this moment in 1927.
“We can still put on quite a show when the need arises,” Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) quips in a room crammed with silverware.
The people doing all that prep work may be in a tizzy, but there’s still time for “republican” vs. “monarchist” debates in the kitchen, where mouthy Daisy (Sophie McShera) can avoid talking about marrying a butler by getting her anti-monarchist back up to the cranky cook, Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), who isn’t having it.
“It’s the King of England! They’s only one’a them in the world!”
Mary orchestrates a few more humiliations for gay butler Mr. Barrow (Robert James-Collier), the biggest of which is her panic in bringing back the retired Carson (the regal Jim Carter), fetching him from his days of gardening in shirt, tie and vest to supervise.
The fresh conflict comes from the imperious royal household staff who insist on taking the place of every single one of Lord Grantham’s servants. Almost every Downton hired hand has a bone to pick with somebody attached to Buckingham Palace.
The privileged few? They have fresh intrigues over another inheritance, an ancient family feud between the Dowager Countess (Dame Maggie) and her cousin, a Lady in Waiting to the Queen, Lady Bagshaw (the formidable Imelda Staunton).
Baroness Merton (Penelope Wilton) takes one last stab at mediating a Dowager throw-down.
“There’s no need to argue.”
“I NEVER argue. I explain.”
Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) frets over one more ball gown. Irish widower Tom (Allen Leech), the commoner who married into the clan, gets a few more dashing and egalitarian moments.
The Lord and Lady (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern) may have less to do, but that makes way for the actual royals with their royal troubles to throw their weight around. There’s unhappily married Princess Mary (Kate Phillips) and Kingly concern for the absent playboy Edward, who would one day fall for the wrong woman and abdicate.
The twinkly British character actor Simon Jones makes a fine, white bewhiskered George V, even if one suspects the once-and-always Arthur Dent of British radio and TV’s “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” has never been on a horse before. Which sovereigns must mount for royal parades, you see. And Geraldine James lends gravitas to a Queen Mary the script makes the very model of kindness and understanding.
Director Michael Engler and the script take their damned sweet time about getting this lumbering beast up on its pedicured feet, the better part of an hour.
The film’s clutter of characters and all the moments set aside for backbiting and bickering serve a purpose — they set up a house staff coup plot, sexual and political intrigues and a cringe-worthy faux pas that is the absolute highlight of the comedy.
Fellowes is better than most at turning stately, slow episodic TV storytelling into a feature film. He doesn’t cut characters or witty lines. But narrowing the period of time and the scope of the plot makes the film work and march forward.
Stille, if you don’t know the series well, you’ll need a program to keep track of who is doing what to whom.
Change is, as always, in the air. Working folk are expressing themselves, mouthing off and demanding a seat at the table. And — bless their hearts — the Crowleys are chafing at the responsibilities, the expense, the dated, reactionary politics of their ruling class, the oblige of their noblesse oblige.
Much of that plays like politically correct lip service, and like much of this “Downton Abbey,” feels unnecessary. But that’s the thing about a cinematic feast for the eyes and the ears like this. You trim the fat, you run the risk of making the whole meal tasteless and dull.
And one mustn’t do that. What would the best sorts of people think?
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements, some suggestive material, and language
Cast: Michelle Dockery, Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Jim Carter, Matthew Goode, Imelda Staunton.
Credits: Directed by Michael Engler, script by Julian Fellowes. A Focus Features release.
Running time: 2:02