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Friday, September 13, 2019

Downton Abbey

DOWNTON ABBEY

** SPOILERS **

Downton Abbey, creator Julian Fellowes and director Michael Engler's splendid feature film of the Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning TV series, is a pristine snowglobe where you peer into a lost and impossibly luxurious world that may never have existed quite like that but that's escapism of fantasy, isn't it? Downton Abbey picks up 18 months after the series finale and continues the stories of the Crawley family upstairs and the dauntless servants who live downstairs. As always, there's so much to do and there's no time for introductions; just as one cannot simply enter the splendid estate of Downton Abbey and poke around willy-nilly, the film isn't for first-timers or someone just wandering in off the street. You have to know your Lady Marys from your Mr. Molesleys to truly appreciate what's happening. Downton Abbey may be for fans only but for the devotees, this is a glorious reunion that puts everyone's best foot forward.

When Downton Abbey begins, tremendous news arrives: King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) are touring Yorkshire in the North of England and will stay at Downton for the night. This is a great honor for the Crawley family - Robert, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), Cora, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery), Tom Branson (Allen Leech), and Violet, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) - but for the servants below-stairs, the arrival of the Royal staff only means one thing: invasion. Chuffed that the Royal Family will sample their food and hospitality, Downton's irrepressible servants Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nichol), Daisy (Sophie McShera), Andy the Footman (Michael Fox), Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle), Mrs. Baxter (Racquel Cassidy), Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) are furious when The Royal Butler (David Haig) and the snooty Royal Chef Monsieur Courbet (Philippe Spall) lay down a new pecking order: they have all been replaced by the King's men and women. Meanwhile, Lady Mary is concerned that Barrow (Robert James-Collier) isn't up to snuff as Downton's butler and recruits Carson (Jim Carter) to return to lead the staff and defend Downton's reputation. Carson, surprisingly, finds himself in over his head but so does Barrow, who discovers his first gay night club and gets himself in trouble. Luckily, his new friend, the King's valet (Max Brown) is there to bail him out. 

While all that happens downstairs, there's plenty of drama upstairs. Indeed, Downton Abbey has more characters and concurrent storylines than Avengers: Endgame. Violet is ready for a confrontation when she hears her distant cousin Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) is joining the King and Queen at Downton; Bagshaw refuses to name Robert Crawley the heir to her estate and instead plans to leave it all to her maid Lucy (Tuppance Middleton) - which prompts Isobel, Baroness Merton (Penelope Wilton), Violet's best frenemy, to serve as peacemaker. Captain Chetwode (Stephen Campbell Moore), a mystery man, recruits Branson - who's both Lord Grantham's son-in-law and an Irish Republican - for some sort of plot against the King. Edith, now Marchioness of Hexam (Laura Carmichael), arrives with her husband Bertie, the Marquess of Hexam (Harry Hadden-Paton) with happy news that she's pregnant but she receives unhappy news that the King requires Bertie to go on a tour of Africa just as their child will be born. The Crawleys also learn that Princess Mary (Kate Phillips) is unhappy in her marriage - oh, the Royals! They're just like us!

With so many characters and stories and so much opulence and pageantry, it's fascinating who falls into mere supporting roles (Lord Grantham, Mr. Bates) and who emerges to the forefront. As much as anyone's, the movie belongs to Tom Branson, Daisy, and Anna Bates. Anna masterminds the defense of "the glory of Downton". She leads the revolution downstairs where Downton's staff engineers the dismissal of the King's people so that they would have the honor of cooking and serving the royal dinner - which Mr. Molesley almost ruins in the film's most gasp-inducing moment. Daisy, more confident and spirited than ever, reveals that she's not a monarchist and asserts herself throughout the film before deciding it's time to marry Andy (a story thread that will perhaps be picked up in a sequel). And cheerful, noble Branson is literally the hero of the hour: he prevents a dastardly assassination plot on the King and finds a new romance with Lucy, who, it really comes as no surprise to anyone who remembers Lady Edith's storyline with Marigold, is actually Lady Bagshaw's daughter. Of course, if Tom marries Lucy, her vast inheritance would go to him - a delicious scheme Violet is calculatedly perpetrating from the shadows. Speaking of Violet, there's a moment between her and Lady Mary that harkens back to Spock telling Valeris that she is meant to succeed him in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country that's both sad and lovely - no doubt, it will work out better for the Crawleys than it did the Vulcans.

Despite the rich drama (and the notable absences of Lily James as Lady Rose and Samantha Bond as Aunt Rosamund), there is lovely heart and humor all throughout Downton Abbey and nary a villain to be found upstairs. Even the King and Queen turn out to be decent and affable people who are "quite used to people acting strangely" around them. Indeed, the film, like Downton Abbey the series, is about second chances, looking closer past a facade to find the (often beautiful) truth underneath, and celebrating people above and below, in all stations of life. Thankfully, Downton Abbey saw no need to reinvent the wheel or transform what the series was into something it isn't to please the masses. As a feature film adaptation of a beloved TV series, Downton Abbey is superior to and more fulfulling than its peers like X-Files: Fight The Future, Star Trek Generations, and the Veronica Mars movie. Downton Abbey, like the great house, the Crawley family, and the traditions they cling to, refuses to change (too much) and, in these troubled times, that's its greatest and most reassuring strength.

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