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03 Oct 2019

For Fans Only: If You’re Not a 'Downton Abbey' Aficionado, You Should Skip the Movie

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Hugh Bonneville and Michelle Dockery in Downton Abbey. Hugh Bonneville and Michelle Dockery in Downton Abbey.

I have never seen a single episode of Downton Abbey, the Emmy-winning British TV series that aired its finale almost four years ago. I didn’t intentionally avoid it; there are just some TV shows I never get around to watching.

So, walking into Downton Abbey the movie, I knew next to nothing. I knew it was set in the early 20th century; I knew it was British; and I knew the awesome Maggie Smith was in it. I also knew Dan Stevens was probably not in it due to situations his character encountered during the run of the show—TV events that made the news.

Well … this movie is a mess—although it’s the sort of mess a true fan will be willing to tolerate. Director Michael Engler works enough subplots into this movie to fuel an entire season of the former TV show, and it’s painfully apparent in the pacing, especially in the film’s first half. The big screen is not serving this cast well.

The big plot point here is that King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) are coming to Downton Abbey—a big estate with a reasonably sized staff—for a quick visit during one of their tours. The staff, excited and taken a bit by surprise, must prepare for the visit.

Much of this movie shows the staff running around and trying to prepare for the visit. They go to the store for eggs; they try to fix the boiler so the queen will have hot water; they endure some minor staff shakeups in anticipation of the big visit. Then the visit happens. Then the visit ends. That’s the main thrust of the movie.

In the background, there are all sorts of little affairs and plot threads that even the most hardcore fans might have a hard time following. There’s even a blink-and-you-will-miss-it assassination plot involving King George that just sort of happens, without any attention to anything resembling details. Hey, a movie where King George V almost gets assassinated should be at least slightly exciting, right? Nope. It’s just something that happens in this movie, as inconsequential as one of its characters taking a bath.

The presentation of the film’s first half is rushed, as if Engler was worried someone would accuse his film of being bloated and dragging. Quick little scenes happen, connected by a plucky string soundtrack that does more to annoy than enhance. Honestly, the kinetic pace of the first half reminded me of Michael Bay’s scattershot Transformers movies.

I wanted this movie to slow down and allow some of its sumptuous set designs and obviously decent cast to be seen and breathe. Example: The Downton staff winds up preparing a meal for the king and queen, and not a single detail about what they prepare is shared. I’d like to know what the maid prepared for Queen Mary. Was it duck? What did they have for dessert? Clearly, the makers of this movie never saw Babette’s Feast.

The last act of the film is its best. A showdown between Violet Crawley (Smith) and Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) comes to a satisfying conclusion, proving their part of the story probably deserved its own movie. There’s no question why Smith won Emmys for her portrayal of Crawley on the show. She’s not in the movie a lot, but when she occupies the screen, the movie takes on life.

The film did make me slightly curious about the TV show, so I could get a little more background on some of its characters (although I probably won’t actually go back and watch it). I can see why the enterprise has gathered a huge throng of fans … but I can’t come even close to recommending this movie.

Downton Abbey is now playing at theaters across the valley.

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