Directed By Michael Engler
Starring – Matthew Goode, Maggie Smith, Michelle Dockery
The Plot – The continuing story of the Crawley family, wealthy owners of a large estate in the English countryside in the early 20th century.
Rated PG for thematic elements, some suggestive material, and adult language
– Satisfies both sides. For longtime fans of the show, the big screen debut for Abbey’s world of colorful characters and vibrantly rich tastes is one in which nothing gets lost in translation. In terms of structure and storytelling consistency, this felt very much like a two hour episode of the television show, with even Engler himself, a staple in directing the show, there to helm its debut on the silver screen. The contrast to that is the new viewers to this world, like myself, who have only seen a few episodes, or never seen it at all. This film will appeal to them as well, because the plot in the film never feels over complicated, or relying upon knowledge of the history of these characters. It’s easily accessible for a new legion of fans, and one that I feel is entertaining enough to peak their interests further towards diving into the lengthier investment of the TV show head first.
– Strong humor. This was something that I certainly wasn’t expecting from the film, and it’s one that made my sit even easier when immersing myself into a film and era that I’m usually not smitten for. There is a lot of English style humor littered throughout the picture, most of which lands effortlessly, and all of which serves a bigger purpose in fleshing out these upper class citizens to human levels of personality at our delight. Sometimes it is a bit slapstick, and that direction doesn’t bode well for the dramatic tension that the film calls for during the second act, but the endless charisma and stark contrasts in so many different characters co-existing under one roof is too conflicting not to feel comedic, and it proved that “Downton Abbey” successfully juggles humor every bit as capably as it does dramatic enveloping.
– Complete team film. Move over Avengers, because the Abbey crew are here to stir their melting pot of personalities towards a bigger common goal. What I love about this film and setting is that there isn’t really a central protagonist, but rather an entire family and service staff that each share ample screen time in realizing these personalities, further adding to the bond that each of them have shared for many episodes under many years. Sure, I do have my favorites, mainly in the grip of Michelle Dockery’s future dilemma that has her feeling pulled from every direction, Allen Leach’s brave and humbling fight against a society fearing change, and of course Maggie Smith’s bickering traditionalist, Violet Crowley. The latter is definitely my favorite, but this is clearly an ensemble piece when it comes to screen time and storytelling focus, outlining a selfless effort all around that fires on all cylinders to give importance to each respective arc.
– Beautiful production value. Easily my favorite aspect of the film is the dynamic of wardrobe, set design, and stage props that transforms us back to the earliest days of the early 20th century seamlessly. In fact, there’s such a consistency when it comes to these elements that you don’t see these famous actors for being who they are off of the screen, you see them as real lived-in people who were each pivotal pieces of this long ago but not forgotten age. The elegantly flowing gowns for the ladies, and three piece suits for the gentlemen stimulate a class in taste that is inescapable throughout the many patrons that celebrate under the Abbey’s quarters. The set backgrounds and interior decorations offer just enough variation in design and coloring that further elaborates the immensity of this one-stage setting, and the attention paid to the dinner silverware, fine china, and sparkling glasses alike offers an indulgence on rich tastes so closely that it makes us feel like a guest that is sitting at this very table. This proves that “Abbey” really is much more than a movie, it’s the very invitation that the trailers promised.
– Eye for Engler. This is my first delve into the mind of Michael Engler on the big screen, but it’s one that surprised me for how this TV-dominated director competently makes the transition to film with a wondrous eye. Besides admiring each pivotal piece of the characters along the way, giving them almost two hours of screen time to interact with our attention, Engler’s greatest feat of strength is definitely the movements behind the camera that seduce us with the Abbey’s charms. The swooping establishing shots, as well as the fine compromise of grounded and aerial depictions offers a versatility of shot composition to prove this man isn’t just resting on the laurels of repetition to sell its charms. This is a director clearly in love with this setting, as he rightfully should be, but it’s clear in the way that he stalks this setting, as well as indulges on the planning that goes into this big event, that he cements the importance that setting plays alongside story. I couldn’t imagine a better director for this film, and it will satisfy fans of the show to know that Michael is a big reason why this thing is a success in the first place.
– Chilling musical score. When I use that statement, it’s usually to capture the essence of horror, but the goosebumps induced on me by composer John Lunn is something that played wonders into capturing the immensity and wonder of a world far from our own. Aside from the show theme, which plays a few times with a few tweaked variations throughout the film, the collection of orchestral numbers conjured an air of equality between sentimentality and prestige that summarizes everything that this film is about. It’s another example of the producers of the movie bringing back another familiar element from the show to make this transition as easy as possible, and a lot like the same way that Engler establishes a visual entrancement, Lunn audibly enchants us with resounding capture of visual props and styles that are then transferred in musical form. It creates a perfect wedding of sight and sound that makes everything else easier because of that consistency.
– Relevant today. As they always say, “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. That phrase is a great one for “Abbey” because there were a couple of arcs of conflict in this movie that are synonymous with exactly what our world is still going through today. Why is this relevant? Well, besides linking up these two polarly opposite time periods in closer capacity than we originally thought, it offers an air of tragedy to the aspect that the less we learn from history, the more we’re doomed to repeat it. This goes for many subplots within the film, but none more prominent than a gay character arc that touched my heart deeper than anything else in the movie did, and really unfortunately initialized the hate for homosexual love that has grown with each passing generation. I can imagine that this age of storytelling more than any makes this subplot even more difficult to fathom, but I have respect to the script for elaborating on the struggles of a world not yet ready to change, allowing a film from the early 20th century to offer a surprisingly relevant level of social commentary for 2019.
– First act repetition. Long before many other subplots are introduced or followed through with, the first act focuses entirely on this royalty storyline involving the staff and families preparing for the visit of the king and queen. Honestly, there’s very little movement that you can expect from a direction like this, that should only take up around twenty minutes tops of film. That is not the case, as roughly the first 35 minutes of this movie is every character reacting to this shocking announcement, and the level of confidence, or lack there of, that they are attacking it with. It fumbles the early pacing a little bit, especially during the time when the movie should be hooking you in, and points to a few scenes that could’ve easily been cut to trim the finished 117 minute run time. Not a major problem, but one that creates more problems than it should initially for a first time fan like me who is trying to invest in these people.
– No weight. It’s important to invest in vulnerability when it comes to depicting rich characters on screen, and unfortunately this movie has very little of it to truly make the conflicts pop with uncertainty. This group runs into very little trouble that they can’t solve by the following scene, and it kind of only instills a temporary sense of urgency, instead of long term adversity that is needed for character growth and audience investment mutually. When you really think about it, there’s such little permanence or change that comes from this movie, establishing a level of superfluous storytelling that could easily be removed from the entire Downton Abbey timeline if someone who hated it really wanted to.
– Dishonesty. I get that it’s a television show-turned-movie, but I couldn’t escape this glaring noise coming from the depiction of British royalty that is a bit too polished to feel legitimate. My problem is in the lack of self-entitlement that is completely not present in their demeanor, making them feel like one of the family, especially considering so little time or attention is given to further flesh out their characters. As crazy as it sounds, it rides quite often on the side of British Propaganda, mainly just for how it glorifies the British class system during the 18th and early 19th century, which created an aristocracy that was anything but positively endearing. For my money, I could’ve used more struggle between the management of the house and the visiting guests. It would’ve presented an internal conflict within the staff that forced them to do things against their bitter judgements, and it definitely would’ve presented a greater conflict that solved the previous two negatives that I mentioned.
My Grade: 7/10 or C+