‘I’ ON CULTURE
There are a lot of fans of the TV show Downton Abbey and the new movie of the same name will be a real treat for them. For those who have not followed the ins and outs of both the “quality folk” and their retainers, there will be a bit of confusion, since most of them were established within the show during the years it ran.
The movie begins in 1927 when the royals, King George V and Queen Mary, are coming for a visit. There are many intrigues going on, including problems with a dress and some fun battle royales between a couple of battle axes (Maggie Smith and Imelda Staunton), but the coming of the royals makes everything pale beside that. Lady Mary (Michele Dockery) is in a real quandary. Times are not good, even for those with palaces. Suddenly, all the little crises build up as everyone, both upstairs and downstairs, have to prepare for a royal visit. She asks Carson (Jim Carter), the retired former butler to come and take over. While all of the rich folk are sniping at each other, the servants have some of their own issues, and we get a glimpse of the coming problems of Northern Ireland and acceptance of homosexuality.
All the details are perfect, buffed to a shine like bright silver. There is nothing jarring us out of the era. But, unfortunately, the movie seems obsessed with the details. There is no real plot. This is not a regular story with a beginning, middle and end. It is more like an extended episode of the television series. If you have not been following the series, it is difficult to find someone to really like. Essentially, it is an elegant episode of a soap opera. Almost every character seems to be defined by a role they play: the gay servant, the possible traitor, the officious chef, a broken marriage.
I must admit that part of the problem for me is that I really dislike these kinds of things. We have the pretense that somehow the “quality folk” are somehow better than their servants. Frankly, just about all of the wealthy are living off the doings of their ancestors. From King George V, who inherited from his father, who inherited from his mother, down to most of the lords and honorable around, they are generally just super consumers. They live really well and do fairly little and, of course, in that age, it was considered quite acceptable to pretend that those who did nothing useful had some value to society. There is some discussion of the “troubles,” strikes by underpaid workers, but none of these folk had to worry about getting food on their tables. Of course, by showing this, it becomes a comedy of manners, critical of the rich.
Even worse, they show servants as (mainly) groveling, fully accepting their low status. It is not very much different from the stories of plantations in the U.S. before the Civil War, when we used to see slaves groveling to their masters. The racial element may not be present, but my discomfort level is very high.
The cast was very polished as well. Maggie Smith and Imelda Staunton did steal most of the good lines. Most of us would hate to have them in our families, but it is fun to watch them put down each other and quibble about inheritances. Staunton’s character is thinking, horrors, of leaving her estate to a beloved servant. The rest of the cast is very good. I have always loved Dockery, and she provides a nice center for the film. Carter seems brought in simply because he was popular in the show.
I am not an Anglophile. I have nothing against them in general, but the love of some people for the unduly proud and undeserving, confuses me. Why should we care about any of these people? Director Michael Engler has reduced almost all the characters to stereotypes in order to create a plot. But in doing so, he has ruined most chances at creating real characters. Everything is smooth and light, but essentially, unless you already know a lot about the characters before seeing the film, there is no real connection. This is good film if you are a fan, not really so good if you’ve never watched the show.