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"DOWNTON ABBEY"
(2019) (Michelle Dockery, Maggie Smith) (PG)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: Members of an aristocratic family of 1920s England and the staff that serves them must prepare for a visit by the King and Queen and their entourage.
PLOT:
It's 1927 and Downton Abbey, a rural estate in Yorkshire owned by Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (HUGH BONNEVILLE) and Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham (ELIZABETH McGOVERN), has seen better days, at least financially. Day to day operations have been handed over to their daughter, Lady Mary Crawley (MICHELLE DOCKERY), and when they all receive news that none other than King George V (SIMON JONES), Queen Mary (GERALDINE JAMES), Princess Mary (KATE PHILLIPS), and her husband, Lord Lascelles (ANDREW HAVILL), will be paying the estate a visit, Mary immediately has retired butler Charles Carson (JIM CARTER) return to handle preparations, much to the disdain of Thomas Barrow (ROBERT JAMES-COLLIER), the current head butler. Also returning is former staffer turned teacher Joseph Molesley (KEVIN DOYLE) who's given permission to temporarily resume duties so that he may serve the king and queen.

But not everyone is pleased about the upcoming royal visit. Robert's widowed son-in-law, Irishman Tom Branson (ALLEN LEECH), obviously isn't impressed by the King and Queen, and his status within the estate has drawn the interest of outsider Major Chetwode (STEPHEN CAMPBELL MOORE) who's just recently arrived in town. Kitchen staffer Daisy Mason (SOPHIE McSHERA) -- who works for head cook Beryl Patmore (LESLEY NICOL) and is engaged to footman Andy Parker (MICHAEL FOX) -- likewise isn't impressed and it's not long before she and the rest of the staff learn their services won't be needed, what with the royal entourage having its own crew.

And then there's Robert's mother, Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham (MAGGIE SMITH), who isn't pleased that Robert's cousin, Lady Maud Bagshaw (IMELDA STAUNTON), the Queen's lady in waiting, will also be showing up with her maid, Lucy (TUPPENCE MIDDLETON). That stems from word that Maud won't be leaving her estate to Robert or anyone else on that side of the family. When the royals arrive, the aristocratic family does their best to shine in the limelight, all while the domestic staff does their best to undermine their royal counterparts and thus have a chance to serve the King and Queen.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Back when I was growing up, there was no Netflix (or even Blockbuster), no Internet streaming and no cable, all of which meant that if you wanted to watch some form of broadcast entertainment at home you were pretty much limited to what the three national networks aired. That said, and with some judicious summer rerun viewing, you could effectively see two-thirds of all programming available.

That's clearly not the case today where you'd need an army of clones to watch everything that's available. Yes, that's a first-world problem that those in developing countries would love to have as their worst dilemma, and it does provide something for nearly everyone in terms of what you want to watch. But it does rob our increasingly divided culture of having experienced something in unison (albeit in separate households), now mostly relegated to watching the Super Bowl en masse.

And for those of us in the reviewer world, it also creates a challenge when a big-screen adaptation is made from small-screen programming that we've never seen. All of which brings us around to "Downton Abbey," the full-length continuation of the fairly popular PBS series that aired from 2011 to 2015 in the U.S. My wife watched it from start to finish, and while I can easily recognize the signature score having passed by the TV on more than one occasion while it was on, I don't think I ever watched an episode in its entirety. Before our press screening I attempted to read through the exhaustive episode summaries for the series, but after a while my eyes rolled back into my head.

All of which got me thinking. When someone like Julian Fellowes, the creator of the TV show, decides to dust it off and bring it to the big screen, are they doing so just for the fans or do they attempt to make it accessible to those of us not familiar with the source material? After all, watering down elements or having to do too much explaining could potentially alienate the diehard aficionados, but at the same time you want to get as many rear-ends in the theater to make as much money as possible.

While I obviously can't say with certainty how the film will play to those intimately familiar with all things "Downton," I can reassure newbies that it's not that difficult to get the gist of who's who and what's what, even if specifics and back-stories end up being somewhat nebulous.

The plot (penned by Fellowes), however, is easy to follow as the impressive estate of the second half of the 1920s has apparently seen its better days, and those now running it are considering whether it's worth the effort and expense to keep it operational. That is, until word is received that King George (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) will be paying a visit, and without much advance notice.

Accordingly, another Mary (Michelle Dockery) -- daughter of the estate's owners, Robert (Hugh Bonneville) and Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern), who's taken over day-to-day operations -- immediately springs into action, bringing back retired head butler Carson (Jim Carter) to oversee operations, much to the dismay of current head butler, Thomas (Robert James-Collier).

Some among the domestic staff -- such as head cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) and former footman turned teacher Molesley (Kevin Doyle) -- are excited to serve the royals, while others such as kitchen worker Daisy (Sophie McShera) think it's much ado about nothing, a sentiment shared by former chauffeur turned member of the aristocratic family through marriage Tom (Allen Leech) who doesn't think highly of the royals, what with being an Irishman.

And with the Queen's lady-in-waiting, Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), also showing up, the estate's dowager (Maggie Smith), isn't pleased since the former has apparently cut out the latter's son from her will. But that woman's maid, Lucy (Tuppence Middleton), is happy to meet widowed Tom and vice-versa.

There are other characters in play as the film sorts out matters over the course of two hours. And that will either make fans happy for the inclusion or possibly miffed that their favorites don't get more screen time. Of course, that made zero difference to me, but I do have to say that overall the film -- directed by Michael Engler and despite sporting handsome tech credits all around -- feels more like a two-parter TV episode than a feature-length film.

That's not as severe a dig as it might sound, but notwithstanding the understandable desire to milk some extra box office dough out of this series, it really feels like it should have aired in its familiar PBS location. That said, and despite being an outsider to this world looking in, I enjoyed enough of the story and characters to give the flick a recommendation. And if you're a fan, I can only imagine you'll like this return visit to "Downton Abbey." The film rates as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed September 9, 2019 / Posted September 20, 2019


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