The cinema was almost full although it was noon on a weekday so I think it’s safe to say this is not going to be a flop. But does it fizz? Not really. It’s fun, but I admit to a series of reservations.
Downton Abbey is one of those difficult films that found the nation’s heart during its hugely successful run on our televisions. It’s creator, Julian Fellowes, found much deserved fame from creating and writing the series. But the question was could he convert that TV success to the bigger screen. Largely the answer is yes. However this will be most true for the super fans that loved the saga when it was on TV. For the uninitiated, for those who have never seen the TV version, I don’t think it will work.
Don’t misunderstand me, that TV version was so popular and as a consequence there will be enough fans to guarantee commercial success for the film, and probably a sequel, which I suspect is, even now on the drawing board. It will do well in the big cities in North America and in the Far East, where some of their formal customs will find echoes in this very English story of class and privilege.
There always were fundamental difference between what makes a film cinematic against a TV show being more suitable for domestic viewing. It was pretty simple. Television looked down and into the problems and influences of daily life whereas cinema films were meant to look up and out at universal issues affecting our world. Hence it was always a very difficult transition for TV shows switching to cinemas. That’s why so many of these transitions have failed miserably.
With the advent of new types of viewing platforms such as Netflix and Amazon this has all blurred so that it has sometimes become almost impossible to tell the difference. That’s one of the primary reasons film stars no longer look down on featuring in TV films. The differences are decreasing to the point of invisibility. Perhaps now you might ask a different question, why pay to go to a cinema when you can watch it cheaper and easier at home? The answer to that are long and complex, but suffice it to say if we can make the right films there will always be an audience for reasonably priced group entertainment.
The more basic truth is that the artiste’s questions of taste of the artistes are largely overcome by the generous application of cash.
But back to the beautiful looking Downton Abbey, I shall not give the plot away; this is really a film about nothing. That’s unless you’re an avid supporter of the aristocracy and really care about how they live in their palatial surroundings. Or perhaps you’re an avid royalist and their past behaviour fascinates you.
Then there are those who fell in love with this kind of proxy lifestyle watching TV shows like “Upstairs Downstairs” and can’t get enough of fantasising being a servant below stairs. None of this ever appealed to me, and knowing that I went into the screening with some trepidation.
The early parts of the film are, to put it bluntly, ponderous and slow. I overheard people say they had nearly fallen asleep. But then the film pace quickened and with it our enjoyment increased. There were some parts of the film that were emotionally engaging and others that caused some giggles in the audience. It is also fair to note that the further the film progressed the better it became. No question the writer knows his storytelling craft.
There are some very appealing set pieces in the film. But the story is so telegraphed that you can tell what the entire plot will be within the first five to ten minutes and there were no surprises.
Of course Dame Maggie Smith steals the entire film and that’s not just because she has the best lines but rather its due to the fact that she’s a simply wonderful actress. She’s in a different league from most of the other players. The other actors are all attractive and competent and do their jobs just like it says on the tin. That’s one of the problems; you have the distinct impression that a large number of the cast members are simply “Phoning it in,” as we say in the business.
Yes the settings are glorious, the costumers have done an excellent job and all the technical outcomes are exactly as they should be. But that’s a little like looking at a painting by numbers, it looks fine but leaves you feeling a little disappointed when you’re hoping for excellence and some originality.
My conclusion, it’s a must see for Downton Abbey’s TV fans and a little less so for those who were never viewers. Overall, I shall score it 7 out of 10 (but for the fans I think it’s a 9!)