Film & TV

All Hail the Reactionary Downton Abbey

Michelle Dockery and Matthew Goode in Downton Abbey. (Jaap Buitendijk/Focus Features)
It makes a brilliantly entertaining case for tradition, stability, and aristocracy.

A  cook in the motion picture Downton Abbey reminds us that “not everyone here is Robespierre, so let’s hear it for the king and queen!” Hear, hear. In the big-screen successor to his 2010–2015 television series, the Conservative peer Julian Fellowes makes a robust case for beauty, order, aristocracy, property rights, and why inequality is necessary, just as he did in the series. He again presents a highly stratified society as a properly functioning and healthy ideal, its opponents so many malignancies that need to be excised.

Downton Abbey is conservative from its kitchen maids to its ballroom dances, one of the most resoundingly conservative items of popular culture in this century. The most defining character arc in its huge cast might be that of Tom Branson (Allen Leech), the former working-class Irish revolutionary who in the movie approaches the completion of his transformation into a proud member of the English gentry who goes out of his way to aid the king. He lacked only a true understanding of how the aristocracy works to appreciate its conventions, its airs and graces, even its classism. Downton Abbey is utterly unafraid to make the case that things in England were better in the old days. Under the wise eye of Robert Crawley, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), everyone at Downton understands his place. Those who seek to upend things are figures of fun, or worse.

The big-screen edition is essentially a double-length episode of the rightly adored TV series, which is streaming on both Amazon Prime Video and PBS. Instead of providing a conclusive ending, the film makes only a half-hearted effort to place a capstone on the saga. It’s 1927, and a promised visit to Downton from Their Majesties, King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James), has the household in a tizzy. The downstairs staff are affronted when told they should move aside so that the king’s personal butler (David Haig) and his crew can take charge of every aspect of running the household of which they are so proud. A visiting French chef (Philippe Spall) who is so full of disdain he might as well be called Monsieur Snooty elbows aside the household’s beloved cook, Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), and even brings his own supply of food. The interlopers may be the personal representatives of the king, but at this country seat they represent a threat to the established order, and the grand theme of Downton Abbey is that change is to be resisted. Nor does one mess with the arch embodiment of the established ways, Maggie Smith’s withering Lady Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, a dreadnought in skirts.

As he did in the series, Fellowes gets things scurrying in all directions with a welter of subplots that give roughly equal prominence to about 20 major characters. Imelda Staunton joins the fun as Lady Bagshaw, a cousin of Lord Grantham, who is being pressured to leave her estate to his family because he is her closest surviving male relative. There is also political intrigue against the king, a blossoming romance, and — heavens, no! — a theft of a silver letter opener. The thief gets caught and told off: Robbery is not the answer to inequality. As if to balance his delightfully reactionary instincts, Fellowes throws in a story line about tolerance for homosexuality that seems forced and a bit pandering. After we get a look at a 1927 version of a gay dance club — men in jackets and ties do the Charleston — two gay men wonder whether attitudes toward homosexuality will ever change. This self-congratulatory sidebar somewhat disrupts the otherwise impeccable period mood. More often, Fellowes combines a novelist’s depth of psychological understanding with a mastery of pointed, trenchant dialogue.

Though Downton Abbey may be the greatest soap in TV history, the film version may seem superfluous — did we really need one more visit with our favorite gentry family and their loving troupe of servants? Yes, because there can never be enough conservatism. It’s a pleasure to spend two more hours with this crew, especially Lady Violet, who despite being a sort of caricature of the conservative mindset nevertheless manages to make a robust case for traditionalism with elegance and wit. Maggie Smith has been earning Oscar nominations since 1965 and has gotten one in every decade since, except this one. Were she to be honored yet again, it would be most suitable.


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