With the latest cinematic iteration of Downton Abbey due to finally hit cinemas like an old bat out of hell next week, it felt like the time was right to exhume the first feature film spin-off from the hit tv show. The takeaway for novices is that this less of a movie than a television special, aimed at raking in the grey pound for thoughtlessly gifted Xmas DVD’s to fill the shelves of tomorrow’s charity shops.
The plot is; Downton Abbey receives a royal visit. And that’s your lot for plot. Creator Julian Fellowes has made no effort whatsoever to broaden the programme’s substantial nostalgic appeal; if you’re not a fan of the series, it’s taken as read that you already know everyone involved, so no new audience seems possible or welcome. The only thing that’s proper big-screen here, in an Upstairs Downstairs-lite battle of the geezer Downton regulars with the posho royal staff, is star Maggie Smith, who takes every opportunity to wring every ounce of wit out of Violet Crawley, master of the bon mot.
Crawley features in one of a number of plot-lines converging on a royal visit, with a touch of Gosford Park-style intrigue, some contrived confusions, and a ball that drags the story on for one hurdle too many. Creator Julian Fellowes, aka Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, to give him his full title, indulges himself with a few personal sub-plots; there’s a plea for gay rights which fell flat with the elderly audience I saw this with on the opening day, who tutt-ed and murmured disapproval at a man-on-man kiss.
It felt like Fellowes had misjudged his audience in this instance, yet it’s one of the few moments where any kind of drama surfaces. Fellowes clearly wants to make fun of people todying to the monarchy, yet the whole film is a calculated act of posho todying. Equally, he wants to point out how he believes that the Establishment sidelines homosexuals, and yet his writing is similarly in thrall. It’s a permanent contradication in Fellowes’ writing that, Gosford Park aside, has generally kept him in television and out of cinemas. Downton Abbey is a well-upholstered, well-cast and reasonably mild way to spend an afternoon in the cinema with elderly relatives, but it’s no reason for non-adherents to take a look, and despite the New Era title, the sequel doesn’t promise much will have changed.