A movie need not come from a place of humane political feeling in order to be beautiful and entertaining, which is lucky for the Michael Englers-directed and Julian Fellowes-written Downton Abbey. The film is a continuation of the beloved television series about the Crawley family and its tone remains firmly in keeping with the original program’s. Its one notable departure from the series is that with the exception of a brief subplot about an Irish Republican agent it has largely shed the show’s soapy theatrics. Its straightforward plot and even-keeled emotional tone are a mixed blessing, keeping things light and brisk but glossing over opportunities for deeper insights into its world and characters.
The movie is is impeccably costumed, its sets tasteful and lived-in while also projecting a kind of effortless extravagance. The camera work is rather staid and unimaginative, fittingly so for a film so staunchly conservative in its values but no less uninspired for it. Shots like a brief angled overhead of the dancers at a royal ball and the final pullback from Downton are somewhat spoiled by indifferent framing and, outdoors, a rather sterile color palette. The film’s depth of field frequently leaves something to be desired, and it too often adopts a perched and ungainly high angle when attempting to show a room or conversation to its best effect. Englers does considerably better in busier, horizontally oriented spaces like the house’s kitchens where the hustle and bustle of Downton feels almost intimate.
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Speaking of intimacy, the film retains and expands upon its single biggest asset: a cast of charming, interesting to look at people with a wide range of appealing voices. They may not do much of consequence throughout the royal visit which forms the backbone of the movie’s plot, but there is pleasure to be found in the limited scope of their aristocratic bubble.
There are sour notes — undercook Daisy’s love story with footman Andy is a complete dead end and the princess Mary’s reconciliation with her appalling husband feels silly and disingenuous — but for the most part the joys of watching these talented actors verbally fence, romance one another, and chat about their world remain considerable. A late scene between the dowager countess (Maggie Smith) and Lady Mary, her granddaughter (Michelle Dockery) even manages to delve into genuine emotion, finding deeper meaning in Fellowes’ stiff upper lip dialogue than perhaps the words themselves merit.
The film is perhaps a little longer than its modest story merits, its ending a bit overstuffed with short shots of characters saying arch but meaningful things to each other, but tonally it’s perhaps the most unified thing to premiere in theaters this year. There is a steady, resolute quality to it which conveys accurately the appeal of conservative political thought: the comfort of believing that life was once more perfect than it is now, and that one might find a place in the lineage of that perfection or else remake it for one’s own generation. Downton Abbey may soppily glorify a world where the people who toil to support the lives of the idle rich above them are afforded little more dignity than the gears in a titanic, uncaring machine, but it’s enjoyable to watch those gears turn in perfect unity, and to see the world they power glitter.