The eagerly awaited big-screen film following the acclaimed Downton Abbey television series that ran from 2010 to 2015 reaches South African cinemas tomorrow (September 20). Is it worth the wait? BILLY SUTER previewed the film which continues the story of the upstairs-downstairs life and times at the noble Yorkshire countryside estate of the series title, in the early 20th century.
SOME early reviewers of the new Downton Abbey movie have rolled eyes at this velly, velly English affair – one labelling it “the visual equivalent of a Valium chased by a flute’s worth of champagne”, and another saying it is “a lifeless blob of brass fixtures and aerial shots”.
Bah humbug, to them. For the most part, the movie, while certainly not of any lofty worth, has been met with smiles and thumbs-up. I loved being awash in its gentle nostalgia.
It adequately does the job it sets out to do – to charm and amply satisfy the many, many fans of the series, some of whom, at early previews overseas, were reported to have applauded when certain characters appeared on screen. Bless them.
Good news for those who have no, or only a passing, knowledge of the TV series and its many characters is that while there might be some confusion, and a bit of bewilderment as to what the fuss is all about, sufficient back info is dropped into the film’s script. Also, the plot here is such that one need not know all the series history to enjoy it.
Written by series writer Julian Fellowes and directed by veteran series director Michael Engler, the movie picks up almost two years after the series ended. It sees most of the familiar characters back, all doing what we expect them to do – and that alone has excited fans and, according to various reports, led to some of the most remarkable advance ticket-buying in recent years.
I accepted a preview invitation mostly to again get to see the delicious Maggie Smith in her award-winning role. As the acerbic, pursed-lipped, super-snob, Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, and matriarch of the Crawley family, she is as wonderful as ever in the film.
Her bitchy tit-for-tats with longtime ‘frenemy’ Isobel Grey (Penelope Wilton) are alone worth the ticket price. In fact, how great would it be were Fellowes to create a spinoff series for these old broads?
The continuing saga of the Crawleys and their devoted staff and relatives is essentially a series of carefully contrived vignettes hitched to a tale of Downton Abbey residents and staff anticipating a visit to the mansion by King George (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) as part of a tour.
This part of the plot is reportedly based on an actual 1912 trip by the British royals to Wentworth House in a bid to demonstrate the importance of the monarchy.
Of course, most at Downton are in a right royal tizzy over the thought of the monarchy visiting, and matters lead to many getting hot under the stiff collar when it becomes apparent that the royals will be bringing their own servants and chef.
In a bid to broaden the canvas we get many sweeping, majestic aerial shots in a story that, over the course of two hours or so, centres on social position and scandal. We also get kleptomania, a homosexual dalliance, an assassination attempt and some right royal family secrets and lies thrown into the mix.
Great to report that the film also stars a cast newcomer, the splendid Imelda Staunton (coincidentally, the wife of actor Jim Carter, who plays trusty Downton butler Mr Carson, who is back and on fine form here).
Staunton, who is rather underused, plays Lady Bagshaw, lady-in-waiting to Queen Mary. A cousin of the scheming Violet Crawley, Lady Bagshaw faces a dilemma over to whom she should one day leave her vast fortune. She also has a secret to share.
Also here, of course, are Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville); Cora, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern); Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery) and former chauffeur Tom Branson (Allen Beech). Among the downstairs crew we have, among others, head housemaid Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan); blonde housemaid Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt ) and loveable cook Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol) and her helper Daisy (Sophia McShera).
Good news for fans is that, depending on how well the movie fares at the global box-office, a sequel is in the pipeline.