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Mario Bautista, has been with the entertainment industry for more than 4 decades. He writes regular columns for People's Journal and Malaya.

Sep 29, 2019


maggie smith as countess violet and michelle dockery as lady mary

the crawley women

WE are an avid Anglophile who loves books and films about British history from Henry VIII, Anne of the Thousand Days and the first Queen Elizabeth to Queen Victoria and Elizabeth II in “The Crown”. We followed “Downton Abbey” on TV from 2010 to 2015 and we’ve now seen it’s big screen version and it feels good to be reunited with the aristocratic Crawleys and their loyal servants.

The opening sequence of the film quickly catches our interest. It starts with a letter from Buckingham Palace and we track down its delivery by train, mail truck and motorcycle to the Crawley’s estate. The messenger rings the bell and we are shown the closeup shot of the wall of bells in the kitchen we’ve seen so many times in the TV series. We feel giddy the moment we hear the familiar strains of its musical score and as we see the first shot of the grand Downton Abbey estate.

Everything that will evoke nostalgia is there and the filmmakers know what loyal viewers would expect and they’re on top of the game. The movie is definitely the best film we’ve seen this year. Of course, it will help if you’ve seen it on TV so you can more or less have a background of who the characters are. But faithful fans of the TV show will simply be enthralled by simply seeing it on the big screen.

The last TV episode ended in Christmas of 1925 and the movie is now set in 1927. Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Boneville), gets an official message from Buckingham Palace informing him that King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) will spend a night at Downton Abbey as part of their royal tour. This excites everyone: the noble masters who live upstairs and the servants who live downstairs.

Downton Abbey is a fictional country estate in Yorkshire, but in real life, the King and Queen were really regular visitors in Yorkshire as their only daughter, Princess Mary, married someone from that place, Viscount Lascelles in 1922. Mary and her cold husband are also included in the movie.

Violet (Maggie Smith), Countess of Grantham, looks forward to meeting the queen’s lady in waiting, Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), a relative and baronness of Granby Estate who is set to leave her property to her maid, Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton), instead of giving it to Robert, her first cousin who has more right to inherit it.

But it’s not the only conflict in the film. The Downton servants are all looking forward to serving their king but it turns out that the royal staff from London are taking over and they’re all just supposed to step aside. Disenfranchised, they feel insulted by the royal staff’s rudeness and arrogance.

Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) thinks that current butler, Thomas Barrow ( Robert James Collier), might not be up to the current challenge of the royal visit so she asks their former butler, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), to return and take over, slighting Barrow.

There’s also an assassination attempt on the King by an Irish radical, which was thwarted by Tom Branson (Allan Leech), the widowed husband of the youngest Crawley daughter who died from childbirth. Tom is later attracted to Lucy Smith and his feelings are reciprocated. Tom also meets a crying woman in the garden and gives her some valuable advice. He doesn’t know that she is actually Princess Mary (Kate Phillips), who wants to leave her unbearable husband, but their talk makes her realize she should sacrifice and stick it out with him for the sake of their family.

There are so many other stories crammed into the two-hour movie, most of which are articulated in short expository compact scenes that last for only a couple of minutes. There’s a ballgown that has to be altered overnight and a royal staff member is blackmailed to do it or else it will be revealed that she’s been stealing items from the room of Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), the Crawleys’ second daughter who turns out to be pregnant and is worried that her husband would be on a trip abroad when she delivers their baby.

The servants, led by Anna and John Bates (Joanne Froggart and Brendan Coyle, who had their own beautiful back story in the TV series) are able to think of a plan how they can retake the household from the domination of the royal staffers, as assisted by Barrow and Ellis (Max Brown), the King’s royal dresser. Anna puts a sleeping potion into the tea of the royal chef while the royal butler is locked inside his room.

Then there’s the gay Barrow being arrested for being in a clandestine nightclub for homosexuals, which was a big no-no at Britain during that era. It is Ellis who comes to his rescue for him to be freed by the cops and this starts a promising friendship.

The King enjoys the dishes served during the dinner which he thinks was prepared by his own chef but Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) suddenly blurts out that it’s actually Downton’s staffers who did it, then he quickly gets embarassed because his behavior defies protocol. He quickly apologizes but the Queen also praises the dinner and even good naturedly adds that they are accustomed to people behaving strangely when she and the King are around.

The film’s finale sequence shows the ball in Harewood where all the major characters are shown waltzing and all the knotted subplots in the narrative, which is like a tapestry with varied threads, are eventually tied up and ironed out. But more “pasabogs” are waiting. 

Upon Mary’s inquiry, Violet reveals that her medical tests in London showed that she has a terminal illness. The final scene is reserved for the servants, with Mr. Carson declaring that Downton Abbey can stand change and the Crawley family will still be around even after a hundred years.

It reminds us of well written costume dramas like Merchant-Ivory’s endearing “Howards End” (where Emma Thompson won her best actress Oscar) and “The Remains of the Day”. Forget “The Avengers” and “Spider-Man” for dumb dumbs. This movie will tear you up with just the way you realize that this is old filmmaking at its best.

It’s about the ending of an era showing the decline of British aristocracy and rigid class hierarchy, personified by the reactionary Countess Violet, in the early 20th century especially after World War I. Her foil in the movie is Lady Maud, the unconventional relative who had an “adventure” in America and has more liberal views particularly about property inheritance.

The movie has more than two dozen characters and we just love everyone in the superb ensemble cast, notably Maggie Smith (we’ll always remember as Miss Jean Brodie) with her sharp tongue and deprecating one liners.  Everyone is given their own moment or two, even anti-royal maid Daisy (Sophie McShera) and her romance with jealous footman Andy (Michael Fox).

Somehow, we miss Dan Stevens as Matthew and Lily James as Lady Rose who both made an impression in the TV series but chose to leave it as they’re both getting more and more assignments in Hollywood, notably Dan in the live action version of the mammoth hit, “Beauty and the Beast”.

The entire production is definitely first rate. The film works as it’s basically a feel good movie that knows just when to end. If you enjoyed Altman’s “Gosford Park” about nobles and servants that got so many Oscar nominations and which was also written by Julian Fellowes, the same writer of “Downton Abbey”, then there’s no way you won’t appreciate this one.

The wonder of it all is that the series and film director, Michael Engler, is American, just like Robert Altman. If this film would be a big hit, then it could just be the start of a franchise that can lead to new film installments. As of now, it opened number one in the U.S., trouncing Brad Pitt’s tedious “Ad Astra”. Let’s see if it could sustain its hold at the box office.