Yet another show I never watched during its prime. Well, not exactly. Whilst I’m not familiar with the specifics of Downton Abbey, I am familiar with the scenario. I used to watch the 1970’s show Upstairs, Downstairs which shares some resemblance to the show and mostly saw Downton Abbey as a show that filled the space Upstairs, Downstairs left. Films made from TV shows are a mixed bag, some make it, some don’t, Downton Abbey, however, had the production value, cast, and popularity to warrant this next step in the series. For fans, this will be a rewarding step, but one of the seeming advantages of not being a fan is that you’re not blindsided by nostalgic feelings and let’s be clear, this film is not a way to get into the show.
But what encouragement is there for fans to stroll upon the abbey again? Well, it plays with familiarity. This is a film that assumes you’ve seen the final episode of the show because there’s little time spent on where these characters are at since the show’s finale. It makes some sense to do this as the story takes place after the events of the final season, however it also a necessity to introduce others to the series, it has been four years since the last season after all. But the characters themselves are easily identifiable in their roles. The moment we are introduced to them, we know instantly what status and/or role they have in the abbey, we know the inhabitants from the staff, the rich from the poor.
Two characters who brought so much cheerfulness to a dignified story were the head cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) and her assistant Daisy Mason (Sophie McShera). The chemistry these two had was immaculate which made them easily the more intriguing characters. Because of their high-spirited natures, not only was the film comforting to watch whenever they were on screen, they were the main source of the energy pumped into the story.
One A-lister who is the star of the film, and from what I’ve heard of the TV series is Maggie Smith playing Violet Crawley. As well as being royalty in both acting and character, she is fantastic in portraying a woman who always seems to be playing mind chess with others, particularly with Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) in a sub-plot regarding barriers between social status and classes.
The swooping scenes of the abbey are marvelous and because most of these cutaways are shot during the golden hour, it gives the abbey so much wealth. The beauty of the stately home’s interior is just as grand as the exterior, the set design is remarkably British, if you’ve ever visited a stately home, you recognize the familiarity of the architecture, the lavish art, and décor. Even at night, when the abbey’s windows are all lit, emphasizing the amount of drama and movement is inside.
I think the biggest trap a film based on a TV series can do, is to not recognize the jump that is needed to take, you can’t expect the TV formula to work the same way it does on film. Luckily, Downton Abbey has these positive points going for it because it may never have recovered from a questionable narrative. For instance, you have the main storyline of a royal visit from the King and Queen and the people of the abbey preparing for it, however, you also have so many sub-plots that are happening at the same time. These subplots don’t know whether they’re coming or going, some may last for the duration of the film, some wrap-up, never to be heard of again when there could have been more to it, and some come into play halfway, two-thirds of the way into the film. Most theses sub-plots are one you can throw away; you need a timeline to figure out the duration of these subplots.
The way the film is structured in the opening third of the film is questionable. We’ve talked about the beautiful cutaways of the abbey, functioning as a passage of time. Yet, there is a lot of repetition, it always seemed to me the film would go drama, shot of the abbey, drama, shot of the abbey, etc. it starts to bore you seeing the same sequences over and over again, it actually takes away from what should be compelling drama.
With the film’s amount of characters and number of sub-plots, audiences won’t be able to help themselves from dividing their attention to characters and sub-plots they find the more compelling. Much like the Upstairs, Downstairs TV show, I preferred scenes that involved the workers of the abbey. They seemed to have a much bigger dilemma and role when it came to the royal visit, them trying to regain control over their own abbey was a joy to watch, most of the films laughs came from these characters. The residents of the abbey, however, I couldn’t bring myself to be interested in their stories (all except for Maggie Smith).
I feel very strongly that films based on TV shows should always try to attract newer audiences, getting them to watch the TV to see what they’ve been missing out on, and potentially, make enough noise to demand a new season. Downton Abbey seems to not mind operating in its own circle when the circle should be reaching out. It has the cast of characters and production value to get people interested. The story of Downton Abbey takes you all over the place and if it could have just tidied up the narrative, we could be seeing a future for the series.