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Siraj Syed


Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 

 

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Downton Abbey, Review: The King, the butler, the chef, the assassin and the maid

Downton Abbey, Review: The King, the butler, the chef, the assassin and the maid

It’s no secret that royals are very particular about almost everything. This is partly due to security concerns and partly a result of ritualistic tradition, passed on from generation to generation. Seeing Downton Abbey not only reaffirms these facts, but also reinforces the theory that Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) may be a result of regal genes, given that kings and queens make such a fuss about everything! Point is…who cares? And had it not been for some language-based humour and an interwoven sublime love story, there would be very little to commend in Downton Abbey.

Based on characters in the famous TV series, the film begins in 1927, about a year and a half after the TV series ended. Buckingham Palace informs Robert and Cora Crawley, the Earl and Countess of Grantham, through a letter, that King George V and Queen Mary will visit Downton Abbey as part of a royal tour through the country. Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, is perturbed that Maud, Lady Bagshaw, Queen Mary's lady-in-waiting, is included in the tour. Robert is Maud's cousin and her closest relative. The two families have fallen out over who should inherit Maud's estate.

Members of the royal household arrive, including Mr Wilson, the ‘Royal Page of the Backstairs’ (butler); Mrs. Webb, the Royal Housekeeper; Miss Lawton; the Queen's Royal Dresser; Monsieur Courbet, the Royal Chef; and Richard Ellis, the King's Royal Dresser. The Downton servants are deeply resentful of the royal household's arrogance. Upstairs, Lady Mary Talbot, the Crawley's eldest daughter, who oversees the estate, believes that butler Thomas Barrow is unable to manage a royal visit. She asks Mr. Carson, Downton's retired butler, to temporarily resume his former duties. Barrow, upset, strongly protests but steps aside. Robert is impressed by Barrow's principled stand, and dismisses Mary's suggestion that he should be sacked. Downstairs, assistant cook Daisy delays planning her wedding to footman Andy Parker, unsure he is the right man. Andy, jealous when a plumber flirts with Daisy, reacts angrily, and damages the newly repaired boiler, causing a break in the supply of hot water to the upper chambers.

A man calling himself Major Chetwode arrives in Downton Village. He seeks out the Granthams' son-in-law, Tom Branson. Branson is a sympathiser of the Irish cause and not an admirer of the King. Branson assumes Chetwode is a detective, assessing security for the royal visit, and checking him out, because of his antecedents. Prior to the royal parade starting through Downton Village, Chetwode goes to where the King is awaiting the Royal Artillery, unaware that Tom, now suspicious, is trailing him. As Chetwode aims a pistol at King George, Tom tackles Chetwode, pinning him to the ground. Lady Mary, following Tom, kicks the weapon away. The real royal detectives arrest Chetwode, an Irish sympathiser who erroneously believed Tom was an ally.

How many names came-up until now? I have lost count. There are as many more! Some 36, sort of, main players! Writer Julian Fellowes has taken his own name literally, and filled the script with fellows and fellowes, if I may be permitted to coin an irregular female of the species. It is an over-written script, and as all over-written scripts do, it meanders. Every few minutes, he comes up with a pithy quote, or a sarcasm tinged exchange that serves to pepper the proceedings. There is nothing novel about drugging an undesirable man (Monsieur Courbet in this case) to sleep and locking another (the butler) in his room, to keep them away from the action for a few hours, but then few other methods would be as efficacious. Perhaps it would have been better to assign a separate screen-writer to convert the TV series into a film script, perhaps someone with OCD, which is much more prevalent than is believed and is not such a bad thing, except in the very extreme cases.

American theatre director Michael Engler has an enviable record in theatre, both on and off Broadway. In TV too, he is a name to reckon with. But Downton Abbey is just his second outing on the big screen. Attention to detail is the name of his game, and all the props are in the right places. However, the first few minutes leave you rather confused. What is happening? A letter? A post office? A train? A station? Horse carriages? All perfectly functioning, all meant to recreate 1927. Are these huge sets, or has he used VFX? You can’t tell. And it does not matter. It is a waste of footage and misleading too, especially Chetwode’s character. I guess this was Engler and Fellowes’ way of developing a suspense angle, but it doesn’t come out that way. He has too much to tackle: royal entourage, assassination attempt, homosexuality, out of wedlock child, inheritance, a widower’s love for a maid, a thief among the king’s retinue, a father-to-be’s desire to be around when his wife gives birth, though the King has ordered him to accompany the Prince to Africa, and soooo much more.

The original TV series ended in 2015, after 52 episodes. Many of the actors have been retained. An actual trip by the British royals to Wentworth Woodhouse, in 1912, in order to demonstrate the importance of the monarchy, inspired the film plot. The estate itself was used as part of the shooting locations.

In the cast are:

Hugh Bonneville as Robert Crawley, 7th Earl of Grantham (English; suitably cast)

Laura Carmichael as Edith Pelham (née Crawley), Marchioness of Hexham (convincing, sensitive)

Jim Carter as Charles Carson (at 71, has the looks and the persona; essayed the same role in the TV series and won laurels; married to Imelda Staunton)

Raquel Cassidy as Phyllis Baxter

Brendan Coyle as John Bates

Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Talbot (née Crawley)

Kevin Doyle as Joseph Molesley

Michael C. Fox as Andy Parker

Joanne Froggatt as Anna Bates

Matthew Goode as Henry Talbot

Harry Hadden-Paton as Bertie Pelham, 7th Marquess of Hexham (brings out the dilemma he faces, with underplay)

Robert James-Collier as Thomas Barrow (homosexual angle, cleverly handled)

Allen Leech as Tom Branson (oozes sincerity)

Phyllis Logan as Elsie Hughes

Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham

Sophie McShera as Daisy Mason (sensual and tentative)

Lesley Nicol as Beryl Patmore

Maggie Smith (age 84) as Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham (spitfire; you’ll love to the her)

Imelda Staunton as Maud, Lady Bagshaw (married to Jim carter; fine job)

Penelope Wilton as Isobel, Lady Merton

Mark Addy as Mr Bakewell (the supplier for Downton Abbey; he cannot get over the fact that the royal family will eat stuff that he has supplied; gushes quite spontaneously)

Max Brown as Richard Ellis (Yorkshire native; homosexual angle, subtly done)

Stephen Campbell Moore as Major Chetwode (menacing, conspiratorial)

Richenda Carey as Mrs Webb

David Haig as Mr Wilson (it takes talent to be disliked)

Andrew Havill as Henry, Viscount Lascelles

Geraldine James as Queen Mary (kind and considerate)

Simon Jones as King George V (OBE; matter-of-fact)

Susan Lynch as Miss Lawton (highlights class difference, conveys strong views on the rich and poor divide)

Tuppence Middleton as Lucy Smith (a penny for your name; vulnerable and graceful)

Kate Phillips as Princess Mary, Viscountess Lascelles

Douglas Reith as Richard, Lord Merton

Philippe Spall as Monsieur Courbet(Anglo-French; actor and voice artiste; French to the hilt)

Oliver and Zac Barker as Master George

Fifi Hart as Miss Sybbie

Even if all the events in the film were true, they are barely able to inform and entertain. One reason could be the alienation one feels about events that occurred 90 years ago, to a bunch of fuss-bags and coronets, though the sub-plots, sometimes, raise the bar. Want to spend 122 innocuous minutes, occasionally chuckling and intermittently moistening your eyes? Go north, to Downton Abbey. English humour is not your forte and you hate mushy love stories? Head south.

Rating: ** ½

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tu3mP0c51hE

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.


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