Clinging to the Past: A “Downton Abbey” Film Review

Written by: Muriel Wang, Trumbull College ’20

This piece was published as part of YRIS’s new arts column.

Be warned: spoilers ahead for the September 2019 movie “Downton Abbey.”

In a politically turbulent time for the United Kingdom (I’m avoiding the B-word), we are all seeking some solace in the past. Away from the buffoonery of certain politicians, gone are the worries about the preservation of democratic norms, farewell to the uncertainties that plague our every waking reality! As the adage goes, nostalgia is best served…aristocratic. 

Since Christmas Day 2015, fans of the “Downton Abbey” universe have been woefully deprived of the sumptuous antics found in the good old British period drama. Their prayers were finally answered this September, when the six-season narrative formally gave rise to a two-hour film adaptation written by showrunner Julian Fellowes and directed by Michael Engler. And so the return of Downton Abbey commences, picking up in 1927 shortly after the TV finale, and catapulting into the lives of abbey residents the most gloriously onerous task of all—the royal visit of King George V and Queen Mary to the estate. The Royal Mail is passed from one to another, from white gloved hand to white gloved hand, until it is placed on a silver tray for the audience to discover with delight that their beloved residents have something to do with their lives for the foreseeable future. Truthfully, between preparing opulent dinners, spearheading a parade honouring the Royals, and scheming to secure their inheritance from estranged relatives, the Crawley family has their hands full. What more could we ask for from our dear tale about generational wealth and the elite?

Much is kept the same—crowd favourites are favourites for a reason after all—and the show’s most imposing, towering figure gets its fair share of the spotlight. Yes, while Dame Maggie Smith packs a punch in her portrayal of the sour, poisonously witty matriarch, shots of the Downton estate itself is featured so heavily in the movie it might as well be top billing cast. As Fellowes himself noted, “Sometimes when they do a film of a series, they will go to Honolulu or something. I didn’t think that was available for us as an option.”[1]Indeed, grand sweeps of the property and the grounds, which ordinarily may evoke a magnificent chilly vibe (also known as: I don’t belong here), instead project a sort of earthy glow, welcoming you the viewer into its embrace. With a bigger budget comes more lavish shots of the interior as well, with the intricate setting of each space thankfully overpowering a lacklustre plotline. As a sidebar, when one of the highest stakes a character has to face throughout the film is faulty plumbing and the accompanying dishy plumber, you know you’re watching Downton. 

The antics of the upstairs and downstairs folk fail to connect in the cohesive manner to which we are accustomed from the TV show. Above all, they fail to intrigue. The forgettable details aside, the film resonates with a modern audience in one major way—we’re longing for the “good old days.” Cora, the Countess of Grantham, says as much. The essence of Downton Abbey enraptures audiences because we take comfort in the familiar, in the traditional. That is, until most viewers quickly realise that this comfort only applies to those in Downton, and arguably only to the upstairs folk. Even the poster of the movie separates the upstairs and downstairs folk ruthlessly, with a literal divider between two social classes of people. While the movie could have explored the decline of the aristocracy in post-World War I Britain, it safely settles with what it knows best—the status quo.

This is a status quo that does not shy away from the King’s colonial endeavours, with the proud parading of a potential three-month “Tour of Africa” with the Prince of Wales buried into a plotline about marital drama. This is a status quo where a young Princess Mary stays in a loveless and emotionally negligent marriage because of royal duty. This is a status quo that briefly plays with the idea of a potential Royal assassination, which is foiled by an Irish Republican who forgets about his socialism for a minute and chooses to protect the monarchy. According to Liz Trubridge, one of the movie’s producers, the foiled assassination plotline was based on the true story of Robert Casement, an Irish nationalist hanged for treason in 1916. Casement had been knighted by George V a few years earlier for exposing the terrifying abuse in the Congo committed by the Belgians.[2]

In the film’s universe, however, there seems to be more comfort and nostalgia in looking back to the past, towards an old world brimming with glittering fantasies of British power and wealth (and supremacy). While, yes, the world Downton paints is very beautiful, and the going-ons of the noblesse obligeand their adoring underlings rather soothing, the ugly underbelly of interwar Britain should be accorded with equal narrative importance. The one time the film comes close is by allowing Lady Mary, played by the inimitable Michelle Dockery, to hint at her doubts of maintaining the Downton estate. The movie does not elaborate nor does it give Mary the chance to act on viable alternatives. In the movie’s most compelling scene, Mary frantically leads her lady’s maid out into a rainstorm to retrieve literal folding chairs. She knows that the life of Britain’s landed gentry is a struggle. She wonders if perhaps she should “chuck in the towel” and sell Downton. It is her lady’s maid, Anna, who convinces her: “Downton Abbey is the heart of this community and you’re keeping it beating!” Should Mary battle on to preserve the status quo? “While there’s blood in your veins!” Anna declares.

It is not up to us to judge whether or not Lady Mary made the right call. What we do know is that the many real “Downton Abbeys” of Britain were sold post-World War I due to the cost of war, death duties, crippling taxes, and declining farm rentals. This is not to mention that conscription led to major shortages in domestic labour. The generations of upper class families, who had enjoyed absurd amounts of wealth thanks to the extraction of resources as part of the largest colonial enterprise in history, had no choice but to adapt, had no choice but to usher in a paradigm shift from the status quo.[3]Now that is a story I would love to watch unfold on the big screen. 

Of course, it is fun to support the perpetuation of elites (and I’d be damned if you did not cry watching the royal wedding), especially while watching a movie where the downstairs people seem to be the most fervent monarchists of us all. There is just so much more potential in “Downton Abbey,” and its inclination to stagnate and cling to a fanciful past for storylines is at best uninspiring. Instead of focusing on the light-fingered royal dressmaker, or the secret lovechild of a new character no one really cares about (and who is played by Imelda Staunton, aka Dolores Umbridge, so there wasno wayI was going to support her), why not raise the stakes by actually selling the estate? By showing us the anti-monarchists up in arms? By painting a picture of an interwar Britain devastated and unable to find comfort in old and archaic social structures? 

Fellowes answers this question loud and clear—we yearn for a movie that is “just like the old days.” We yearn for it so badly that the film raked in $31 million just in US ticket sales, beating out every other film that weekend. Perhaps a sequel can address more of these concerns, and advance the storyline in new and interesting ways. In the same way Lady Mary decides to shush her nagging desire to sell the estate, we ignore our desire to see more than just the restrictive walls of Downton Abbey. For now, while acknowledging all of the film’s flaws, I’d be the first to frankly admit that an escape to Downton Abbey feels good, and without a doubt—for those who watched till the very end—hearing the assurance of Downton’s longevity roll out of Henry Talbot’s (Matthew Goode’s) mouth feels fantastic.


Bibliography:

[1]Wood, Jennifer M. “5 Lessons the ‘Downton Abbey’ TV Team Learned about Filmmaking,” The New York Times. September 20, 2019. Accessed September 28, 2019.

[2]Salazar, Alejandra. “The Assassination Attempt in Downton AbbeyNever Happened But It’s Inspired By Real History.” Refinery29, September 22, 2019. Access September 29, 2019.

[3]Sawer, Patrick. “Why the Real Downton Abbeys Went into Decline After WWI.” The Telegraph, February 15, 2015. Accessed September 29, 2019.

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