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edge staff writer


‘Downton Abbey’ sumptuous and satisfying

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“Downton Abbey” was a television phenomenon. For six seasons, millions of viewers immersed themselves in the lives of the residents of the Yorkshire country estate of Downton Abbey. The members of the aristocratic Crawley family and their domestic servants received equal airtime, with all of their dramas – large and small – playing out to the delight of a massive audience.

I was not a member of that massive audience. Aside from an occasional snippet caught due to a friend or loved one watching the show, I had zero exposure to the program. I was aware of it, but I was largely unfamiliar.

So when it came to the “Downton Abbey” film, I was left with two choices. I could try to catch up on some 50-plus hours of period drama … or I could go in cold and see if the film version held up without the context of the show.

I chose the latter.

And honestly? I’m glad I did. There was no way I would have been able to recreate the zeitgeist-capturing phenomenon the show presented during its run. Instead, I went in largely clean, having only the broadest notions of what was to come. And while I lacked much of the character context that informed the experience of those around me, I was still captivated by the story that unfolded, which speaks volumes of the richness brought forth by series creator Julian Fellowes (who also wrote the screenplay for the film, which was directed by Michael Engler).

The surprises began before I even stepped into the theater. While I understood that the show had its adherents and diehard fans, I had no concept of just how passionate they were. This movie was an event, with the kinds of lines and sold-out showings that we expect from comic book blockbusters rather than costume dramas. Audiences had been waiting to find out what happened to these people who had become so beloved to them, and so turned out in force (and occasionally in costume).

And I am here for it. For all intents and purposes, this movie is “The Force Awakens” for the NPR set, and it’s a fantastic thing. Liking things passionately is one of the biggest joys inherent to any kind of pop culture fandom; it’s wonderful that these sorts of experiences can be made available to those with different interests from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its blockbuster ilk.

As for the story itself, the film takes place in 1927. The residents of Downton Abbey – upstairs and downstairs alike – must prepare for the great honor of a state visit from the King and Queen of England. Lord Grantham Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville, “The Corrupted”) enlists the aid of his daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery, TV’s “Good Behavior”) and son-in-law Tom (Allen Leech, “Bohemian Rhapsody”), along with his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern, “The Chaperone”) and the rest of the family, in an effort to prepare.

Meanwhile, the servants are thrown into a whirlwind. The retired former butler Carson (Jim Carter, “Swimming with Men”) is brought back into service as there are doubts about current butler Barrow (Robert James-Collier, TV’s “Ackley Bridge”) being up to the task – especially once it becomes clear that the royal servants have very particular ideas about how everything should be handled … ideas that involve the Downton staff simply staying out of the way.

There’s also some potential for drama, as the Dowager Countess Lady Violet (Maggie Smith, “Sherlock Gnomes”) learns that the Queen will be accompanied by her lady-in-waiting Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton, “Finding Your Feet”), Robert’s first cousin who has fallen out with the family over a future inheritance.

All that, plus an assassination plot, some professional and personal jealousy, a few love stories – some forthright, others forbidden – and a whiff or two of scandal, both below stairs and above.

There’s a fair amount of narrative going on here, but I’m not the one to recount it. There are SO MANY CHARACTERS, all of them with their own rich and thorough backstory. These are characters that have been given full lives over the course of the show’s six seasons, lives to which I have had almost no exposure.

My biggest question was a simple one – would I be engaged by the film despite lacking that character context? The answer was a resounding yes.

“Downton Abbey” is a lovely film experience no matter how much previous exposure you bring to the table. On one end of the spectrum, you have the fans, the folks who watched every season and were actively energized by the opportunity to revisit some old friends. On the other, people like me, who know “Downton Abbey” primarily in theory.

We all had a great time.

The film was visually sumptuous, of course, packed with shot after gorgeous shot of the styles and settings of that particular time and place, all of it captured with beautiful and accurate period detail. The sets, the locations, the costumes – all magnificent.

And the performances – good lord. This is a STACKED cast. We’re talking two dozen deep, with talented actors more than capable of leading roles content to be, like, 15th billed. It’s extraordinary. We can talk about Bonneville and Carter in their respective patriarchal roles, or Dockery’s earnest edge. There’s the low-key likability of Leech. Exceptional performances from the likes of Staunton and McGovern and Laura Carmichael and Joanne Froggatt and Penelope Wilton and on and on and on.

The highlight, however, was Dame Maggie Smith as the acid-tongued Dowager Countess. Now, even a “Downton” neophyte such as I knew Smith’s reputation for witheringly genteel putdowns, but it can’t be overstated how fantastic she is at them. One of the highlights of the theater experience was the air of anticipation from the crowd every time she opened her mouth; everyone couldn’t wait to hear how hilarious she’d be – and she unfailingly delivered.

“Downton Abbey” is obviously going to be more impactful for those with knowledge of the show, but even if you’ve got none of that, you’re still going to have a great time, thanks to stylish direction, high-quality writing and exquisite performances.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 25 September 2019 05:16


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