Downton Abbey


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Downton Abbey
"Padded in places and threadbare in others, like an old mattress."

After six series on the small screen, during which it gained a devoted fan following, the eagerly anticipated film version of Downton Abbey arrived on the big screen in 2019 with a lot of love. It will have needed every bit of it.

Heritage film has historically been one of the strongest assets of the British film industry, with works like Maurice, The Remains Of The Day and comparative latecomer Gosford Park earning well-deserved praise. At its best it offers intelligent critique of the class system and ts impact on individual lives at all levels in society. At its weakest, it is at least pretty. The social commentary to be had here is distinctly flimsy but it's the visual condition of the film that is most disappointing. Highclere Castle remains a handsome building and the costume design by series regular Anna Robbins is excellent, but all this is wasted as the film is, frankly, painful to look at.

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Let's start with the cinematography. Ben Smithard has worked mostly in television and that may be part of the problem here. Everything is sufficiently well lit that one can see what's going on (sometimes at the expense of any logical understanding of where the light is coming from) but many scenes are washed out to the point where individual shots look as if they have been printed out on cheap notepaper, scanned and put back on the screen. Then there's the editing: for most of the running time you'll struggle to count more than two seconds between cuts. This not only wastes the potential offered by large rooms, long corridors and sweeping outdoor vistas - it leaves one feeling decidedly queasy. There are completely unnecessary cuts in scenes where people are just walking along, without any significant change in camera angle. Stylistically, this adds nothing. Visually, it suggests that somebody wanted to make an action movie out of a film with one of the slowest-moving plots of the year.

Michael Engler's direction is all over the place, never establishing a consistent tone, his past experience on the series notwithstanding. To be fair, he isn't helped much by a script which is singularly devoid of tension. The plot hinges on a planned visit to the titular stately home by the then King and Queen. High stakes indeed! What if not every series regular gets to meet them? What if their food isn't perfect? What if people's clothes don't fit properly? To bulk out this uninspiring offering we get a decidedly silly subplot about the staff trying to prevent royal staff interlopers taking control, a flirtation between an established character and a visitor which is sweet (and has moments of real social relevance) but has no connection to anything else that's happening, and some uncertainties about inheritance which fail to register as terribly important in light of the fact that the upper class characters are already rolling in wealth. Oh, and there's a possible assassination drama which is discarded ridiculously early, doing away with the only real hope that something interesting might happen.

The real aim here, rather than telling a compelling story, is to make sure that every established character gets a look in, which leads to numerous scenes that have no point at all other than to please the fans. The result feels padded in places and threadbare in others, like an old mattress. It doesn't do justice to any of the characters, nor the actors playing them, and it's a sorry way to say goodbye to such a successful enterprise. You will find a few laughs scattered here and there, but not all of them for the right reasons. This is one piece of heritage that's better forgotten.

Reviewed on: 09 Dec 2019
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Downton Abbey packshot
A big screen addition to the popular television series about wealthy owners of a large estate in the English countryside in the early 20th Century.

Director: Michael Engler

Writer: Julian Fellowes

Starring: Matthew Goode, Alice McCarthy, Maggie Smith, Michelle Dockery, Tuppence Middleton, Elizabeth McGovern, Imelda Staunton, Stephen Campbell Moore

Year: 2019

Runtime: 122 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK, US


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