Theatrical feature films based on TV shows with the original cast are extremely rare nowadays, even in animated form. HBO’s ‘Sex and the City’ seems to be one of the only adaptations to have actual success, but it seems that was a fluke. ‘Entourage’, ‘Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie’ and ‘Kath & Kimderella’ all banked themselves on reuniting an old cast but all failed on delivery. ‘Downton Abbey’ hopes to bring the critical success it experienced on the small screen for its cinematic leap - but does it succeed?
Two years after the events of the series, Downton is still in full swing. The servants have a healthy relationship with the Crawley family, and all are happy in the house. But when a letter arrives from King George V (Simon Jones, ‘Miracle on 34th Street’, ’12 Monkeys’) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James, ‘Alice in Wonderland’, ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’) requesting to visit the whole house is sent, chaos ensues to prepare for the royal visit.
I must confess I have never seen an episode of the show. I’ve followed it through friends and news, so I was excited when the film was announced as I would finally get an insight into the hit show. Right off the bat, it's clear if you have never seen the show then there's no saving you; the film picks right up and runs as if the show never left. The film seems much more comedic and melodramatic than the show ever was.
It’s strange to say that this TV show that was a historical period drama and won many drama awards is now a fun movie. Maggie Smith (the ‘Harry Potter’ franchise, ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’) who plays Violet Crawley, the head of the family, and Penelope Wilton (‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’, ‘Shawn of the Dead’) who plays Isobel Grey, have a very love/hate relationship, but every scene with them just turns into a competition of who can out-sass each other. I’ll be the first to say that’s fun to watch, but it seems a little out of place in a period drama. Violet’s main plot of the film is how her cousin Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton, ‘Maleficent’, ‘Paddington’), who works for the King and Queen, is close with her maid (Tuppence Middleton, TV’s ‘Sense8’, ‘Jupiter Ascending’), and that gets under Violet’s skin. For most of the run time, the build-up of their storyline is that there is going to be a massive fight between the two, but it’s just another sass-off.
One of the biggest failures in the transition to film is the balance of the characters. There's so many characters, but most have so little to do. In a TV series, it's easier to not seeing a main character for a long amount of time, but in a movie it's strange. The Crawely family is missing for huge chunks of the film, with the main focus being on the waitstaff and their hilarious hyjinks when the royal servants come in and take over. While again this is enjoyable, everything is very over-the-top and a little too slapstick. It’s your typical clashing of heads with one party too upper-class and stepping on toes of the servants of the house, so it plays out exactly how you would expect.
‘Downton Abby’s’ transition to film isn't going to make it onto any worst film-to-TV adaptions lists, but it is a mediocre film that offers two hours of fun for fans of the show.
A prime example of not caring if you’ve seen the show is Thomas Barrow’s (Rob James-Collier, ‘The Ritual’) subplot. He's now the head butler at Downton, but when the royals step in he starts butting heads with them, so they bring back the previous head butler, Mr Carson (Jim Carter, ‘Swimming with Men’, ‘Transformers: The Last Knight’), to run things while they are in town. This leads Thomas having some free time which leads him to an underground gay club; this comes up around the end of act two - that's how late it plays out. There is absolutely no setup to him about being gay in the film, although I knew from the trailer that there would be some kind of gay plot, yet in the film it comes out of nowhere. It seems like they were doing a little bit of queerbaiting, and the scene has so little impact on anyone other than the filmmakers giving themselves a pat on the back for including it.
Another issue with the film is that it adds zero to the Downton legacy. Characters are virtually unchanged from events of the film, having zero consequences on its players. If you were a fan of the show, the movie doesn’t offer much - it’s just an extra two hours with these characters that they expect you'll enjoy.
‘Downton Abby’ is known for its production design, and the movie is also a letdown in that aspect - nothing feels grand. Even if you don’t like Baz Luhrmann’s ‘The Great Gatsby’, just looking at it on a big screen is breathtaking, from the costumes to the set design. 'Downton' seems like it should be in that same vein, but sadly it’s a little bland. The clothes they are wearing are beautiful but are never really showcased, which is a strange move for this film. It also never leans into fan service; even the fact that the royals are coming is extremely downplayed. You expect a huge reveal or grand entrance, but it never happens - they just show up and the movie keeps going.
‘Downton Abby’s’ transition to film isn't going to make it onto any worst film-to-TV adaptions lists, but it is a mediocre film that offers two hours of fun for fans of the show. If you’re not a fan, there is absolutely no reason to see it. The film seems more like an extended TV special rather than a theatrical film, but fans won’t be mad to see it on the big screen.