“It’s ... cute!” “It’s ... pretty good!” You know it when you hear it: the audible ellipsis in search of something noncommittally positive, the pitch inflecting brightly into an invisible exclamation point. I’ve been using it all week anytime somebody asked me what I thought of Downton Abbey, a two-hour film extension of the British TV program of the same name, itself an enjoyably sudsy comic melodrama made classy with period history, a passing interest in income inequality, and – in America – the dignified imprimatur of Masterpiece Theatre. Fans of the show (of which I am one) should be satisfied if not entirely sated with the first new Downton material since it went off the air in 2015. Those with no prior knowledge of the show should probably see what’s playing in the next theatre over.
If you already know who lives comfortably upstairs (the Crawley family) and toils day and night downstairs (scullery maid, valet, and so on) at this Yorkshire country estate in 1927, then the film’s cavalcade of familiar faces is a treat. Most of them don’t get much more than a wink and a smile and a line or two; with 30-plus speaking parts, series creator Julian Fellowes’ script strains to give them all something to do. The central action – I hesitate to call it anything so vigorous as a plot – involves preparations for an overnight stay by the king and queen, then complications that arise during their state visit. The downstairs staff’s storylines suffer the most from the downsizing from season-long pacing to mere feature-length; rushing around in a silly war of wills with the royal family’s entourage of servants, they eat up screen time that might have saved other narrative detours from feeling so rushed – the once-villainous valet-turned-noble-ish-butler Thomas’ (James-Collier) exploration of his sexuality, for instance, or Lady Mary Crawley’s (Dockery) conflictedness over running the estate, which is only gestured at.
Ah, but the opulent costumes are glorious, the autumnal light enchanting, and if you don’t know how to feel about a certain scene, composer John Lunn’s jaunty, carryover music cues are there to nudge you in the right direction following a romantic moment or Dowager Countess zing. (On the subject of the latter: Yes, the 84-year-old Maggie Smith is back as the Crawley materfamilias, and as ever she’s the MVP.) Downton Abbey may not soar to new heights or tender any surprises, but there’s a pleasure to its predictableness. It’s so very ... capable.
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