'Downton Abbey' visually ratchets up the drama in winning, uplifting film

  • Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton), Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), Robert Crowley (Hugh Bonneville) and Andy Parker (Michael Fox) nervously prepare for a royal visit in "Downton Abbey."

    Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton), Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), Robert Crowley (Hugh Bonneville) and Andy Parker (Michael Fox) nervously prepare for a royal visit in "Downton Abbey." Courtesy of Focus Features

 
 
Updated 9/20/2019 9:19 AM

"Downton Abbey" -- ★ ★ ★

If Jane Austen had written this movie, she would have titled it "Pride and Purpose."

 

The last thing you might expect this big-screen version of the tempered PBS British series "Downton Abbey" to be compared with would be Studs Terkel's musical "Working," based on the Chicago icon's published interviews with proud members of the working class.

Yet, when the King and Queen of England (Simon Jones and Geraldine James) announce a visit to Downton Abbey during their 1927 tour of Yorkshire, class divisions evaporate, temporarily, as everyone -- from the lord of the manor to the mannered lower classes -- bonds in a communal euphoria of validation.

Even the staunchly aristocratic Earl of Grantham, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), gets sucked up in the pomp and circumstance of the impending royal recognition.

Kitchen maid Daisey Mason (Sophie McShera) complains to Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) about the shameless royal bootlicking occurring at "Downton Abbey."
Kitchen maid Daisey Mason (Sophie McShera) complains to Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) about the shameless royal bootlicking occurring at "Downton Abbey." - Courtesy of Focus Features
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"Would it be common for me to admit I'm excited?" the Earl wonders out loud.

"Not to an American," his doting American wife, Cora, the Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), says.

Fans of the series that began in 2011 (with the sinking of the Titanic, no less) will doubtless be delighted that director Michael Engler and cinematographer Ben Smithard have created a movie movie, not a visually conservative TV show shoveled on to the big screen.

This movie retains the familiar look of its earlier incarnation but visually ratchets things up several notches with grander dramatic drone shots, swirling and swooping lenses and dynamic widescreen compositions.

Lady Hexham (Laura Carmichael) joins The Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), Tom Branson (Allen Leech) and Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) in an uplifting movie based on the PBS series "Downton Abbey."
Lady Hexham (Laura Carmichael) joins The Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), Tom Branson (Allen Leech) and Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) in an uplifting movie based on the PBS series "Downton Abbey." - Courtesy of Focus Features
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Downton" newbies should easily access this endearing, uplifting story of an unusual family unit that unites against snobbery, insolence and self-importance, comically and poignantly pushing back against a royal staff of twits with no sense of empathy.

Julian Fellowes, the creator of "Downton Abbey," remains an expert craftsman of dialogue and subtle plotting. (He deservedly won the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award for 2001's "Gosford Park," directed by the late Robert Altman.)

Fellowes camouflages the exposition so well that newcomers catch on to the characters and their back stories without the heavy-handed spoon-feeding tactics employed by most Hollywood films.

Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery) shares her upper class concerns about an impending royal visit with Henry (Matthew Goode) in "Downton Abbey."
Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery) shares her upper class concerns about an impending royal visit with Henry (Matthew Goode) in "Downton Abbey." - Courtesy of Focus Features

Conflict creeps in on many levels as Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) persuades Carson the butler (Jim Carter) to retire from his retirement to take over the royal preparations from a highly miffed Barrow (Robert James-Collier).

Then we have the feuding cousins, the dowager Countess Violet (a snippy Maggie Smith) is wittily distressed that Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), one of the queen's ladies in waiting, wants her fortune to be given to her close friend and personal maid Lucy (Tuppence Middleton), not to Violet's son, Robert the Earl.

Meanwhile, a handsome Irish republican named Tom Branson (Allen Leech) takes a fancy to lucky Lucy, and becomes an unwilling recipient of odd attentions from a mysterious Major Chetwode (Stephen Campbell Moore).

John Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt), who married on the "Downton Abbey" TV series, discuss plans to resist a royal takeover of their duties.
John Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt), who married on the "Downton Abbey" TV series, discuss plans to resist a royal takeover of their duties. - Courtesy of Focus Features

"Downton Abbey" features a few surprises as well, the biggest one being how it celebrates the members of Britain's class system while simultaneously villainizing its haughty, exclusionary essence.

Credit the screenwriter, a jolly good Fellowes.

• • •

Starring: Hugh Bonneville, Jim Carter, Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton

Directed by: Michael Engler

Other: A Focus Features release. Rated PG. 90 minutes

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