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 It’s as if he’s trying to say, “yes, I know this is all terribly outdated,” before adding, “but why don’t we just enjoy it for a bit, eh?”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.

Barry Lyndon (1975)

2016 #111
Stanley Kubrick | 185 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | UK, USA & Ireland / English, German & French | PG / PG

Barry LyndonStanley Kubrick made a good many exceptionally well-regarded films — indeed, with possibly the exception of his first semi-amateur feature, Fear and Desire, every one of his works can lay claim to being someone’s favourite. Nonetheless, although you wouldn’t guess it from its barebones also-ran type treatment on DVD and Blu-ray, three-hour period drama Barry Lyndon places among his top works in terms of consensus audience favourites, in that it’s on the IMDb Top 250. That said, it’s at #230, while the other six films on there are in the top 100, and he only made 13 features anyway — so it sits at the precise halfway point of his oeuvre, at least on IMDb.

Adapted from a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, commonly called The Luck of Barry Lyndon but whose full original title is going in a footnote because it’s so long,* Kubrick’s film narrates the life of the eponymous Irish rogue (Ryan O’Neal) as he falls in love, runs away from home, joins the army, becomes a spy, becomes a con artist, marries a wealthy heiress (Marisa Berenson), runs an estate, and is a man of dubious virtue and questionable likeability throughout the whole affair.

Apparently the novel is considered to be the first English-language ‘novel without a hero’, aka antihero, and Lyndon certainly fits that bill. He serves his own interests throughout the tale, which is rarely seen as a desirable characteristic but can certainly be an understandable one, though at times you may despair at how his stubborn dedication to certain causes actually works against his interests. On the other hand, he has a great propensity for blagging his way through a war, and the ensuing complications, so I guess he learns from his mistakes… some of them, at any rate. It would be tough to say that Barry is a character you empathise with, but that doesn’t stop him from being a fascinating one to follow for a couple of hours. Some of this dislike may stem from the film’s voiceover narrator, who often tells us less-than-favourable things about the lead character. Apparently this is an example of an unreliable narrator, and I suppose some of the things we’re told aren’t directly evidenced on screen, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to leave that seam to be mined by other writers, because (on a first viewing at least) I didn’t see where or to what effect the narrator was lying to the viewer.

As played by O’Neal, Barry’s accent places him as coming from the same part of Westeros as Littlefinger. Although I wouldn’t say he did a bad job, there seems little doubt he was miscast. The story of how he came to be in the film is more interesting than his performance, really: Warner Bros would only finance the film if Kubrick cast a top-ten box office star, based on the annual Quigley Poll of Top Money-Making Stars. O’Neal was second on the 1974 poll, just behind Clint Eastwood and ahead of people like Steve McQueen, Robert Redford, Paul Newman, John Wayne, and Marlon Brando. Barbra Streisand was the only woman on the list, so you’d think Kubrick had nine options, but apparently they were all considered “too old or inappropriate for the role” with the exception of O’Neal and Redford. O’Neal was the bigger star thanks to also securing a Best Actor Oscar nomination in the past, but Kubrick was smart enough to offer it to Redford first, but he turned it down so O’Neal it was. Ironically, 1973 was the only year O’Neal appeared in that top ten, while Redford placed first in 1974, 1975, and 1976.

Whether it was the intention or not, O’Neal often gets by thanks to the style of the narrative, in which a series of variously-plausible events keep happening to Barry as much as he is proactive in making them occur. This is not a simple, narrow-focused, cause-and-effect kind of story, but a fictional biopic, that ranges across Europe and across time to… what effect? It’s a Kubrick film, so the ultimate goal of the tale, the message(s) it may be trying to impart, are debatable. You could see a story of the pitfalls of hubris. You could see an exploration of how a certain class lived in this time period. You could just see a man who led an adventurous life.

Whatever the merits of the tale, its telling is a frequent wonder. Its length and pace are surely barriers to entry for some — this is not a thrill-a-minute rollercoaster ride; it’s more analogous to a BBC miniseries, perhaps, albeit one where you’re watching all three episodes at once. Well, binge viewing is the TV watching style du jour, so that shouldn’t be a problem for anyone nowadays. Much has been made of the film’s candle-lit photography, using special lenses adapted from NASA, and rightly so; though perhaps it’s beginning to look less remarkable as we move into an era where digital cameras can produce exceptional range and quality. That’s not to say the potential commonality of such lighting decisions dulls the excellence of John Alcott’s photography, but, without knowledge of the production challenges, a modern viewer might not be so readily wowed.

Maybe I’m one of them, because for me the best shots are to be found elsewhere. The film is littered with recreations of art from the era — not obvious “ooh, I know that painting” recreations, but photographic imitations of the painters’ style, subjects, and composition. The opening shot, for instance, really looks like a painting. It’s incredible. I’d even go so far as to say it’s the best shot in the film; which is not to say the ensuing three hours are a visual disappointment, just that it remains the best among greats. (That said, having looked up images online for this review, it seems slightly less striking to me now. That may be the quality of the screengrabs; it may be that the painterly quality is so remarkable at first appearance (before becoming more familiar when the whole movie has that quality) that its memorableness is heightened.)

With its measured pace, obfuscated meaning, and sporadically likeable characters, Barry Lyndon is not the most readily accessible movie ever made. Well, it’s Kubrick, isn’t it? There’s so much to commend it though, especially if you consider visual style a reason to watch a movie (not everyone is satiated by that, but, for a visually-driven medium, I think it’s a perfectly acceptable element to be particularly engaged by). It’s an imperfect film (for Ryan O’Neal if nothing else), but perhaps a brilliant one. Certainly I’d put it in the high-middle of my Kubrick viewing so far — and as his only films that I’ve seen are all on the IMDb Top 250, that’s an upgrade from me, at least.

5 out of 5

The restored 40th anniversary re-release of Barry Lyndon is in UK cinemas from today.

Barry Lyndon was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

* The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. Of The Kingdom Of Ireland Containing An Account of His Extraordinary Adventures; Misfortunes; His Sufferings In The Service Of His Late Prussian Majesty; His Visits To Many Courts of Europe; His Marriage and Splendid Establishments in England And Ireland; And The Many Cruel Persecutions, Conspiracies And Slanders Of Which He Has Been A Victim. ^