Downton Abbey (2019)

2019 #128
Michael Engler | 122 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | PG / PG

Downton Abbey

As the 2020s loom, with the world in a scary old place for a whole host of reasons, why not retreat to the safety of the 1920s, when posh toffs ran the country because their birthright had put them there rather than because the hoi polloi had actually chosen to vote for them in some act of retrograde nationalism. Downton Abbey does actually feature a subplot where a group of working-class servants secretly plot to overthrow the system… but the system in question is the one about who gets to serve the King and Queen their dinner. The working classes fighting amongst themselves about something fundamentally unimportant while the upper classes carry on serenely above them? It’s almost allegorical, although I suspect not on purpose.

No, like the TV show it’s a sequel to, Downton Abbey is much too busy being a comforting blanket of “it was better in the old days” jollity to bother with social commentary. Creator/screenwriter Julian Fellowes throws in the odd nod to more progressive concerns (republicanism, LGBT rights, the fading fortunes and relevance of the aristocracy), but they’re no more than hat-tips in the general direction of modernity. It’s as if he’s trying to say, “yes, I know this is all terribly outdated,” before adding, “but why don’t we just enjoy it for a bit, eh?” Well, we do all need an escape into fantasy sometimes, and not everyone likes it in the form of a bespandexed private army battling purple aliens.

Certainly, you’ll need to be prepared to engage with the concerns of this rarefied world if you want to find any drama here, where major points of jeopardy include whether there’s enough time to polish all the silver and if they can manage to put some chairs out while it’s raining. Sure, there are subplots including things like an assassination attempt and a police raid on a gay bar, but they’re not treated as being nearly so significant as who cooks dinner.

Polishing the silver. Not a euphemism.

So, yes, it’s mostly puff about pomp and pageantry — if you were after a film to perfectly encapsulate “heritage cinema”, you could hardly do better. But who would’ve expected anything else? Surely we’re all familiar with the TV series, even if you’ve never seen it, and naturally this big-screen version continues in a similar vein. At its core the series was really just a posh soap, and that style of melodrama is recreated here also: the engaged kitchen maid’s eye is caught by a hunky plumber; what’s behind the uncommonly close relationship between the Queen’s lady-in-waiting and her maid; will someone’s new royal appointment force them to miss the birth of their child; and so on.

If it’s beginning to sound like there are a lot of different storylines, well, there are. That’s another legacy of it originally being an ensemble TV show, of course: there’s a big, broad cast and every character must be given their due. Consequently, some reviews have accused the film of having no story, which I think is unfair. The primary plot is simple — literally just “the King and Queen visit Downton Abbey” — but it’s there. And the way the film chooses to depict this story — as a collage of subplots that, as a collective, show how the visit is prepared for and executed from the perspectives of a variety of roles at every level — is hardly an unheard of cinematic format for providing an overview of an event or situation. The reason for Downton taking this approach are rooted in its televisual origins, but if you wanted to consider it divorced from that context then you’d merely see a structural similarity to something like Nashville, for example.

Of course, the fact that Downton is a sequel to a six-season TV series is something most of us won’t ignore, whether because you’re a dedicated viewer coming to this as the 53rd episode, or you’re a neophyte with a background awareness that anything you don’t understand may be because it was explained in the TV show. I find myself in the slightly unusual position of someone who straddles both these stools: I stopped watching somewhere in the third series, so I know who most of the characters are and where their stories began, but I’m unaware of what went on for them in later years and who some of the later additions are. Fortunately, the highly structured class divide of the setting makes it easy to get a grasp on most things. Characters’ backgrounds are not as clearly explained as you’d expect to find in a truly standalone movie, but I think the fundamentals can be ascertained well enough. That said, I say that as someone who had a leg up from watching some of the series, so a total newcomer may find it more bewildering.

What's the deference?

One thing that’s interesting, returning to this world as someone who skipped a few years of it, is how much the emphasis has changed in places. By which I mean, some characters who once had a major are now given short shrift. For example, Hugh Bonneville has always been the de facto lead face of the programme, which makes sense as he’s Lord Grantham, head of the Downton household; and he’s still top billed in the opening credits, although I think that may be more a happy accident (I believe it listed the entire returning series cast in alphabetical order) than an indication of status. Either way, he has very little to do here, with other cast members taking centre stage. The real headliner in the series was always Maggie Smith’s acerbic Dowager Countess, and that continues to be the case here, as she snags both the lion’s share of the funny lines and the film’s most genuinely emotional scene. It feels like something of an ode to the venerable actress herself as much as it is a bit of in-universe business, and who could really begrudge such merited reverence? As to the rest of the cast, there are plenty of reviews out there that approach the film in more detail from either a fan or newbie perspective, so if you’re interested in specifics it may be worth seeking those out.

Some might argue this movie could’ve just as well turned up as a TV special, and, story-wise, it’s hard to disagree. Nonetheless, director Michael Engler and DP Ben Smithard have given proceedings a bit of big-screen pizzazz, using a 2.39:1 frame to accentuate grander shot choices and occasional cinematic flourishes, and much of the photography exhibits a warm-sunlight glow that makes you wonder if they somehow shot the whole thing during golden hour. And while too many big-screen re-dos ignore the emotive power of familiar music (see the Spooks movie for one where I specifically complained about it, for instance), here composer David Lunn’s familiar Downton theme is used to striking effect. I must admit that, even as someone who didn’t stick with the series and hasn’t watched it for years, the opening minutes gave me goosebumps.

Is the sun setting on this empire?

Truth be told, that’s not a terrible analogy for my reaction to the movie as a whole. Its near-fetishisation of regressive social modes should be distasteful, and some of its soapy scenes are accompanied by clunky dialogue and stiff acting that make it feel like you’re watching a period-dress episode of Coronation Street; but it can also unleash a sharp wit or well-constructed bit of farce (I laughed often), and there’s a certain majesty to the scenic, pretty-postcard photography that sweeps you up into its less complicated world. If you take it for what it is — a portrait of a time gone by — then it’s a likeable little jaunt.

4 out of 5

Downton Abbey is in cinemas now.

Victoria & Abdul (2017)

2018 #52
Stephen Frears | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English, Urdu & Hindi | 12 / PG-13

Victoria & Abdul

Returning to the role that earnt her first Oscar nomination, Dame Judi Dench stars as an even older Queen Victoria, who once again gets involved in a friendship with a foreign servant to the exasperation of those around her. If it wasn’t based on a true story, the similarities to Mrs Brown would make Victoria & Abdul look like a slipshod copycat sequel. Okay, this isn’t technically a sequel, but the similarities can’t be ignored.

Where the earlier film aimed for dramatic weight as a portrait of a grieving and isolated monarch finding human connection again, here the goal seems to be more comedic. Perhaps. I mean, if often shoots for funny, but it’s not funny enough to be an outright comedy. At other times it’s more straightforwardly dramatic, especially as it gets towards the end, but there’s a nagging sensation that the facts have been bent to fit the expected shape of the narrative. The film begins with a card that says it’s “based on real events… mostly”, which feels a little too comical for a heritage drama such as this, and was perhaps more intended it as a “get out of jail free” card for its historical accuracy. (I don’t know what the facts are, mind, so I can’t vouch for or condemn the film’s faithfulness to them.)

Turns out we are very much amused

Dench is very good, as you’d expect. The rest of the cast don’t get to deliver as much range, but they’re a quality bunch of performers and so are easily up to what they’re given. It’s also as pretty a production as you’d expect, with Oscar-nominated makeup and costumes, plus opulent production design and grand location choices, all shown off by Danny Cohen’s pleasant cinematography.

I read someone else assess that it’s not as good as its individual parts, and I think that’s fair. Most of the scenes, moments, and performances are strong — there are notably funny bits, dramatic bits, emotional bits; even unexpected complications in how it handles some of the characters — but when it’s all put together, it doesn’t quite coalesce. If you think you’re the kind of person who’d enjoy this movie, there’s every chance it will please you no end. Otherwise, while it does have definite qualities, it doesn’t do quite enough to transcend its trappings.

3 out of 5

Victoria & Abdul is available on Sky Cinema from today.

A Royal Night Out (2015)

2016 #82
Julian Jarrold | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 12 / PG-13

A Royal Night OutA somewhat remarkable true story gets romanticised in this likeable comedy about King Colin Firth (Rupert Everett) and Queen Olivia Colman (Emily Watson) allowing Princesses Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) and Margaret (Bel Powley) to go out on the town on V.E. Day. When Margaret runs off, Liz teams up with a grumpy squaddie (Jack Reynor) to track her down.

Gently amusing and relatively briskly paced, A Royal Night Out is lightweight and unchallenging, the definition of Heritage-ish lazy Sunday afternoon viewing. That means it will rub some viewers up the wrong way, but others will love its simple, old fashioned charms.

3 out of 5

Brideshead Revisited (2008)

2008 #49
Julian Jarrold | 133 mins | cinema | 12A / PG-13

Brideshead RevisitedI’ve not seen the miniseries and I’ve not read the book, but I do know that both are considerably longer than Jarrold’s two-and-a-quarter hours film. So why does it feel so slow? Perhaps it’s the pair of opening flashforwards (easier to refer to them as that than to the majority of the film as one great big flashback), an overused technique these days that here serves no purpose whatsoever: there’s no additional insight on events that follow (or, rather, precede) by placing these snippets at the start, and there’s no new perspective on the snippets when we reach them chronologically (except that, second time round, we actually know who the characters are). It’s the most niggling fault in a film that, like my just-reviewed WALL-E, is of two halves.

The first is very good. It’s entertainingly written and performed, firmly in the tradition of the ‘heritage’ films and TV series that Britain churned out through the ’80s and ’90s — it’s the natural successor to the work of Merchant-Ivory, who of course produced the tonally-similar (at least at first) A Room With a View, which makes this all seem very appropriate. As Sebastian, Ben Whishaw is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the best of the three leads. When he’s off screen you miss him, and the point at which Sebastian leaves the story is arguably when things go off the boil. As Charles, Matthew Goode by and large holds his own — handy really, as he is definitely the centre of the film. Emma Thompson is as you’d expect her to be, which is to say she’s pretty good but ultimately it’s all rather familiar from her other performances.

The second half is where the film falls apart. The focus shifts from Charles and Sebastian’s friendship/possible homosexuality, to Charles and Julia’s love affair. The latter seems to come from nowhere and never takes off, consequently making it hard to accept the lengths they’re prepared to stretch to in order to make it work when they’re finally reunited years later. The plot slowly slides into darker and bleaker territory, needlessly dragging small characters back into proceedings to kill them off and finally pushing towards an Atonement-esque World War II epilogue. Some or all of this is obviously derived from the source, but considering the praise garnered by the novel and miniseries I presume it’s made to work there. Here it doesn’t.

An hour-and-a-half in I couldn’t understand what story there was left to tell, and I continued to be bemused by the sudden import of Charles and Julia’s relationship as the next hour dragged by. It’s a shame, because Brideshead starts out so promisingly and enjoyably, but once it begins to slide it never recovers.

3 out of 5