Initial thoughts on the Downton Abbey film

The film version of the popular ITV drama Downton Abbey had its world premiere on 9 September and the reviews which soon followed were unsurprisingly lukewarm. The Guardian called it a “most intensely glucose and sometimes baffling Christmas special” while The Daily Telegraph observed that the transition from small to big screen has not been successful; adding that “[w]atching [the film] is like settling into a reupholstered armchair which still creaks in the same old places.”

DA film poster

The BBC on the other hand found the film’s plot “obvious almost to the point of stupidity” observing the wearying predictability of the whole shebang and unsurprisingly some of the characters who “are handed unnecessary subplots to give everyone some screen time,” while the Daily Mail pointed out what the film’s major issue was, lamenting that it was “nothing more than an entire series in miniature, full of compacted plots and sub-plots, some compelling, some preposterous, some purring with early promise then fizzling out, just like on the telly.”

The most damning verdict however came from Variety where the critic was not one to mince his words about what the film’s problem was:

“But a big, multistage party in honor (sic) of the royals gives Downton Abbey something at its center (sic) with high enough stakes and the requisite amount of retro luxury. It also provides an opportunity for writer Julian Fellowes to stage the conversation he seemed, throughout the series’ run, to prefer having, an emphasis on the value of tradition that comes on so strong as to arrive at a stifling sort of social conservatism. Downton Abbey has always been, above all, about the value of preserving tradition; stripping away its muscularly written soap plotlines in favor (sic) of a thin picaresque tale of a royal visit reveals just how much of the show’s appeal is ideological.”

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that the reviews bar a few fawning ones have been quick to point out the film’s flaws which are pretty much those that have plagued the TV series’ run, magnified 100 times on a multiplex screen – too many characters, plots that go nowhere, lack of dramatic weight and rhythm, poor transitioning, clunky dialogue and hammy not to mention bad acting. When the film was announced back in July 2018, we predicted that the film would be no different to the TV series and the Christmas specials, a period and unfunny version of Seinfeld which is all about nothing. The drip, drip of the trailer, clips, pictures and information over the next few months have done little the change our initial verdict and the whole preposterousness of the plot underlines how much Julian Fellowes has ignored history and misrepresented it to present a sanitised and false picture for the entertainment of the masses.

Even before the UK premiere hints were being dropped that a sequel is planned. While the series were being aired Fellowes said that stopping in the 1920s was the correct time to end as:

“I feel the ’30s have been very much explored dramatically,” he said, “and I didn’t really want to get into the whole business of the Nazis, which I think has been explored exhaustively. And I don’t know that there is anything else to be said about the Nazis.”

Let’s not even comment on the arrogance of that last paragraph; although a number of distinguished historians of the era would probably disagree. What he means, of course, is that not even his portrayal of Downton Abbey, with its sublime disregard for the world outside, could ignore the steadily darkening political and social environment of the 1930s and instead give us a film that pretends the Crawleys are immune to the forces affecting everyone else in a Wodehousian world of sunshine and “all is well with our class” (but without Wodehouse’s laughs, wonderful writing and brilliant plotting). Although the man who dismissed the General Strike with a cringeworthy one-liner would probably have a damned good try.

 

7 thoughts on “Initial thoughts on the Downton Abbey film

  1. That was a pretty scathing review! Not to say that I don’t agree with it, but I would imagine that the vast majority of those loyal viewers who made Downton the success it was/is don’t care at all about historical veracity. They watched it for the soap operaness. People who cared about historical accuracy stopped watching DA pretty quickly. Personally, historical veracity is important to me but not when I’m looking for some escapist entertainment. (Plots, on the other hand, matter to me always, which is why after putting up with four series of increasingly ridiculous plot lines, I cut the line during the sixth series and have no intention of wasting money on seeing the movie.

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    1. Many thanks for your comment. I agree that many of the viewers won’t care about historical accuracy and will continue to watch and lavish hosannas on Downton regardless. I also agree with you on the plot as I know a lot of people who stopped watching around series 3-4 due to the fact that the plots were becoming ridiculous and lacking any logic or credibility.

      What saddens me about this film is that how much this flies in the face of historical reality and how much a crucial event like the General Strike is simply swept under the carpet. As is the Crawleys’ continuing financial woes.

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    2. My friend and I studied history at university, and both of us loved the movie. The assassination story was pretty silly, but I don’t think that DA’s historical inaccuracies compare with such movies as the one about Elizabeth 1 with Cate Blanchett, which still receives glowing reviews!

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      1. I agree but while with Elizabeth the writers admit that they took liberties for the sake of the narrative and while they grated on me, the writers were at least honest. Julian Fellowes on the other hand makes grandiose pronouncements on accuracy and having done his research when its clear he has not. Not to mention how he can be fairly thin skinned about criticism.

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      2. In addition, we’re not reviewing Elizabeth (which was admittedly pretty bad in terms of historical veracity.) We are reviewing DA, which we have been repeatedly told is meticulously researched and 100% historically accurate. And for the record, we (there are two of us who write this blog) have history degrees as well – studied to postgraduate level and one of us works in the heritage sector.

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  2. Great review. As silly as the film is, though, I’m glad that it’s turning out to be a major hit. When there’s proof that someone other than comic book readers will go to the movies this will encourage the industry to diversify their productions. But man, this is a cotton candy movie. In a “real” film, the assassination attempt would not be an afterthought that’s resolved have way through.

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    1. Thanks. It might be a hit in the US but it doesn’t seem to be here in the UK. Ironically though the critical reviews from the US have mentioned in greater detail the film’s flaws. Overall the film’s plot itself is an anachronism, no way would would it had happened that way.

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