The TV series Downton Abbey once caused a ruckus when it stepped off its plot carousel of inheritance squabbles and missing soufflé forks to move into grittier dramatic territory. The recoil was instant and almost universal. Downton was a cartoon, fans protested, an escapist fairyland. Finding dark complexity in Downton Abbey was like finding a war criminal in a ball pit – this just wasn’t the place.
Blessedly, the feature film is in total agreement. Its plots are mild, its shenanigans are light and its victories are many. When it isn’t a comedy, it’s a romance, and when it isn’t either, it’s a shop window advertising the glamour and sturdiness of the olden days. The only feathers it’s likely to ruffle are those of choleric Marxists unable to get a kick out of excellent hats.
The hats are excellent. As are the gowns, jewellery and decorative cornices. The work of running and maintaining an entity like Downton Abbey, the lawn-mowing, gravel-raking, clock-winding labour, is practically fetishised. One majestic shot is – no word of a lie – filmed from the perspective of a prawn vol-au-vent being swept balletically around a dining room on a silver tray. Director Michael Engler pays due tribute to it all with spinning cameras that float through ballrooms and boot rooms, alighting on anything that gleams.
It’s a gleaming kind of picture. Its vision of 1927 England is one in which shining steam trains puff through postcard scenery and crisply painted buses carry the worthy poor to make an honest living. The worthy poor though, aren’t the reason one buys a ticket for the toff safari. We’re here to see titles.
Those are in rich supply. For this cinematic outing, the usual Earls, Countesses and Marquesses have been outranked by the honest-to-God, living, breathing, bona fide, no-foolin’ royals. That’s right, the King and Queen of mother-flipping England are coming to Downton. Calm down, deep breath, it’s really happening.
That’s roughly the level of excitement reached in the film’s first 10 minutes, a tone maintained almost throughout with an energy and dedication impossible not to be swept up in. A dissenting grumble or two aside, the royal visit is roundly anticipated with a case of the full-on starry-eyed fainting sweats. Mr Carson is brought out of retirement to oversee the silverware buffing. The kitchen is aflutter at the thought of the King tasting Mrs Patmore’s custard. The entire village’s socks are blown off at the prospect of standing on the self-same cobbles on which His Majesty’s horse may deposit a royal dump. Mr Molesley has an aneurysm. Several aneurysms.
The first half is a dizzy lark. (Two hours long with no ads, the film feels about one third the length of any of the unending Christmas specials.) It keeps moving, taking your hand and pulling you through the Abbey, where a million people are doing a million things of absolutely no consequence whatsoever. It is a blissful, mind-clearing monument to frivolity – all ball gowns and snooty Frenchmen and tea with the princess and ‘Daisy, fetch the soufflés from the oven’.
If you’ve never seen the series, you’ll keep up. It’s all been arranged with broad, comic accessibility in mind. Writer-creator Julian Fellowes has given it the slightest and silliest of plots – essentially an extended version of sitcom standard ‘the boss is coming to dinner’. There are other intrigues, rivalries and rebellions – all the ingredients of the Downton trifle – but they’re just excuses to wind each character’s key and set them rattling off in the way fans love.
Maggie Smith delivers one-liners as the Dowager Countess, Penelope Wilton delivers them back as Violet, Jim Carter pulls faces as Mr Carson and Kevin Doyle goes for broke as Mr Molesley, comically stealing several scenes. New-to-the-cast Imelda Staunton demonstrates the screen presence required to share scenes with Smith and not come out looking like a shop dummy.
Message-wise, it’s one long toast to tradition. It’s whiter than milk, with aristocrats who are noble and royals who are gracious, all of whom bear the weight of their tough responsibilities with dignity. The powerful stay in unhappy marriages for the sake of the country, which is held up on their knobbly, jewel-draped shoulders.
By the time the end comes, the film’s really just walking around grinning at things. Characters, romances, sconces… anything that sparkles gets a beam. It starts to drag, and the general air of satisfied victory suffers from a jarring lurch to mawkishness – proof again that Downton is better when kept frothy and fun.
This film is frothy and lightweight, but by no means stupid. For one, the fantasy England it conjures will sell tickets by the bucket-load. For two, there’s a knot of tension complicating the otherwise overwhelming nostalgia. One whispered sub-plot acknowledges that no, not everything was better in the old days. For some, the march of social progress isn’t an annoyance to be borne, but a desperate requirement.
Mostly though, it sticks to the comedy and the beaming. Soothing, fragrant and practically weightless, it’s a cup of chamomile tea. One destined to make Abbey-sized piles of cash.
Downton Abbey is in cinemas from 13 September.