Film review: Downton Abbey

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Today is Friday, September 20th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. 

Good morning. I’m Megan Basham.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. So, Megan, I’m going to see tonight what you are about to review, so don’t give anything away, ok?

BASHAM: Oh, I won’t! Or at least not anything that should surprise you if you’re a Downton fan. And if you are a Downton fan—and I know you are—I think you’ll be well pleased. 

But if you never watched Downton Abbey, the movie is not the place to start. Those who skipped PBS’s historical drama on television will have a hard time understanding why their fellow movie goers are so entertained by two elderly ladies bicker during a garden stroll. They’ll be utterly stymied by the eruption of cheers when a retired old butler ceases puttering in his vegetable patch and marches off to polish silver for the lady of the manor.

CLIP: Carson. Oh, m’lady. Please come in. This is an honor. I don’t want to be a nuisance, but I need your help, Carson. Barrow just isn’t up to the task. He won’t clean the silver. Or, he won’t let Andrew clean it. What? He says the page of the thing-a-me will choose which pieces to use. I see. The truth is, he’s in a sort of trance. Won’t you help me? I feel I’m pushing a rock up a hill. I’ll be there in the morning, m’lady. Don’t you worry. You’re a treasure, Carson. That’s all there is to say. 

Likewise, if you failed to fall under the show’s spell when it aired from 20-11 to 20-16, don’t expect the feature length film to change your opinion. Because this Downton makes little effort to bring along novices or convince skeptics. It’s content to be exactly what the series was—a high-style period piece so proudly focused on the intricacies and mannerisms of the British class system, Jane Austen herself might consider it a little over the top. 

CLIP: Seems rather a waste of money. Oh, here we go. Isn’t that what monarchy’s for? To brighten the lives of the nation with stateliness and glamor? 

The plot centers on the kind of low stakes Anglophiles will adore even if they’re not exactly clutching their seat cushions with anxiety. Lord Grantham receives a note from Buckingham Palace announcing that the king and queen will spend a night at Downton during their tour of Yorkshire. In the flurry of preparation that follows, the royal staff arrives early. That immediately causes conflict with Downton’s faithful staff. Can you believe it—the liveried blackguards try to usurp the authority of our beloved Mr. Carson, Bates, Anna, and Mrs. Hughes! Even communist kitchen maid Daisy takes umbrage at their majesty’s hoity-toity French chef thinking he can pull rank over Downton cook, Mrs. Patmore. 

CLIP: So, my maids and I will not be involved in the preparations. You mean, during the stay you’ll be the butler—? Excuse me, I am not a butler. I am the King’s page of the back stairs.

Downton creator Julian Fellowes serves up a few other minor twists. The dowager countess—as always, mistress supreme of the arch one-liner—tries to convince a cousin to leave her estate to Lord Grantham. Former chauffeur and Irish-Republic sympathizer, Tom, gets mixed up with a bit of political intrigue. But none of it does much to threaten the peace of the bucolic English countryside or the harmony of the bustling village streets.

Taken together with the luxurious art-deco sets and costumes and the stunning aerial scenery, you might ask–isn’t this all a mere fantasy of the past? A bit of tea-and-crumpets comfort food? Of course. But, sometimes, isn’t that exactly what you want from an evening at the movies?

CLIP: She’ll be back tomorrow, so I’ve asked her to come for tea. You must persuade her to leave Maud Bagshaw alone. [Laughter] I don’t believe even mama will pick a quarrel in front of the King. I wonder if he can come early. [Laughter] Are you excited? I am a bit. Are you? Would it be common to admit it? Not to an American. 

Christian viewers will be less comforted by a same-sex romance that sees Thomas visiting a gay jazz club with a royal footman. That takes the film beyond its PG rating. Beyond this, Julian Fellowes’ script is so mild and lovely, you might not notice that it settles, once and for all, the clash of worldviews subtly debated throughout the TV series. 

Must inequality breed enmity? This was the question we saw play out over various storylines. Here, in the big screen finale, Fellowes answers, emphatically, no. His film is as strong a rejection of the politics of envy as any we’ve ever seen.

Meritocracy can be a wonderful thing. But as Downton Abbey shows us, meritocracy goes too far when it assumes that merit is only found in those who rise to grand stations. Downtown celebrates a world of order where people are free to pursue dreams and move up in rank provided their methods are honorable and their motivation isn’t resentment. 

No one spells out this thesis out more explicitly than lady’s maid, Anna. First, she scolds the queen’s dresser. Because we cannot all inhabit a lofty place, she asks, does it mean no one should? Later, she encourages Lady Mary to weather the difficulties and headaches of running a massive enterprise like Downton because of the livelihoods it provides. 

The story is even so counter-cultural as to suggest the servants should take as much pride, if not more, in their roles as the aristocratic Grantham family. To take liberties with the apostle Paul, can the upstairs say to the downstairs, I have no need of you? So long as servants and lords have equal concern for each other, all can rejoice in the honor of the estate.

(Jaap Buitendijk/Focus Features via AP) This image released by Focus features shows Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Talbot, center left, and Matthew Goode as Henry Talbot in a scene from “Downton Abbey.” 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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