Like one of Mrs Patmore’s proverbial soufflés, Downton Abbey in film format is light, fluffy and permanently – perilously – on the verge of total collapse. It is not, as some have suggested, merely akin to an overlong episode of the television series that took the world by storm between 2010 and 2015. No. What has been created here is a whole series, truncated to singular feature length; a full box set lacking only advert breaks and next time teasers. One can almost hear the twee inflections in John Lunn’s divine score that ought to herald commercials, and will one day soon with ease. Despite sleeker visuals and an afternoon spent filming long shots in a helicopter, this budgetary upgraded Downton won’t win new fans for the franchise but should prove to be the icing on the hard core’s cake.
Most of the cast and crew from Downton’s heady television days have been retained for the film, with Julian Fellows writing still and Gareth Neame and Liz Trubridge producing. Some time series director Michael Engler brings a familiar style to proceedings, with only sweeping wide shots – captured through an afternoon well spent in a helicopter – belying the broadened horizons of a bigger screen and budget. In all other respects, from the stately serenity of Highclere Castle to the hairpins holding together Mrs Hughes’ tightly bound number and a succession of deliriously mundane plot points, Fellows keeps things defiantly televisual. For all the pomp and ceremony of the looming royals, around whose visit the film evolves, it might as well be Pudsey Bear and Terry Wogan on the way via a Children in Need special. This is, I noted amid an audience who audibly gasped at one later revelation, impressively critic proof stuff.
Fellows opens with the arrival to Downton of a letter from Buck house, delivered by chugging LNER and rickety postal van. Excitement upstairs and down is tangible but there is tension too. Is once vile footman Barrow (Robert James-Collier), now butler to Lord Grantham (Hugh – along for the ride – Bonneville), up for the job? Could erstwhile Irish commoner Branson (Allen Leech) be plotting to assassinate the King (here: Simon Jones’ George V)? Will Fellows ever pluck up the courage to kill off Maggie Smith’s implausibly old Dowager Countess, surely now well into her centenary years? As far as the latter is concerned, one hopes not. Faults aside, Downton would be a much sorrier world without Violet’s barbarous asides: ‘Will you have enough cliches to get you through the visit?’
Say what you like about Fellows’ soapy inclinations but the Gosford Park Oscar winner knows how to work an ensemble. An episodic narrative flow finds room for all to either experience the rush of a new love or suffer the woes of false jeopardy. The boiler’s broken and Daisy (Sophie McShera) might like the plumber – poor Andy (Michael C. Fox), who can’t fathom why she won’t marry him right away. The local grocer (a brief show up for Mark Addy) has the wrong end of the stick and the chairs for the royal parade are late. Gosh. Each strand, no matter how perilous, peaks and resolves in the blink of an eye and resonates with all the impact of a gentle breeze. Blow too hard the other way and watch the whole thing crumple before your eyes. At least it’s inoffensive. Mostly. Fellows ongoing insistence that gay men are always instantly attracted to other gay men continues to rankle.
Pleasingly for fans, enough is left open to suggest that Carnival have eyes on at least one more sequel. Whether it’s worth paying up to watch a film destined for ITV’s Christmas schedule in just over a year’s time falls to personal taste. For me, the whole thing was too affable to resist.