“Downton Abbey” (PG) *** and a half
I ENVY the richly mellow baritone voice which Jim Carter puts to such admirable use as retired butler Carson, called to serve after a letter arrives from the Palace (which Palace? That Palace, silly) advising that His Maj and Her Maj, together with household staff, will break a northward journey with an overnight stop in Downton Abbey.
I admire the skill with which writer Julian Fellowes, using dialogue that pricks the story with precisely-planted wit and understanding of the ambitions and restraints imposed on every character in the film’s 122 minutes, lays out the dramatic, political, ceremonial, romantic, wellness, sexual identity and gastronomic issues that make the Crawley residence such a pleasure to visit in its big-screen debut.
The behaviours of the upstairs characters, the services of those who live and work below stairs, the pomposity of Royal household staff who without a by-your-leave assume control of all services down to providing the food for Royal meals, the panoply of Royal progress along streets filled with flag-waving loyal subjects and a Royal Ball, provide director Michael Engler with wonderful material to play with. You’ve got to give it to the Brits; their tactics may be crude when the Aussies arrive to play Test cricket, but by and large, no other nation does ceremonial so splendidly.
Fans of the TV series (77 episodes between 2010 and 2015) will relish meeting old friends whose behaviours will spark fond memories. One of them has just returned with an uncomfortable diagnosis from a London doctor. Another is forced to reveal hidden indiscretions (at those social levels, indiscretions are much more grave than what you or I might call simply an unfortunate peccadillo). A minor matter of foreign policy may have to be re-jigged because of a long-awaited pregnancy. Some explaining will be necessary when the Earl and his Countess learn what went on below stairs before the Royals had dinner.
It’s all good British fare, to which in this genre there are few if any equals. But looking between the lines, I can’t help feeling that Julian Fellowes, who surely has done well from the Crawley establishment in that inter-bellum era, takes private satisfaction from subtly disparaging his dramatic themes.
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