The near frenzy of publicity over the film version of the overwhelmingly popular PBS series “Downton Abbey” is done.
Fears that its producers and fans had and the clucking of detractors that it wouldn’t fly have been quashed by its hit status.
As Peter Bart writes in “Deadline,” many mainstream critics ignored the film and its success has left “Hollywood’s dwindling movie fraternity ... to ponder the bemusing lessons of Downton Abbey.”
Lesson one: To wit — money. Big time money. Its $31 million box office opening beat the likes of both Sylvester Stallone’s and Brad Pitt’s opening films which had much greater production budgets and marketing advantages. It appears the “Downton” success is holding and was no fluke.
What Bart calls the “underserved” 45- and up age group and female audiences remain a force against the comic book set. Hollywoodland can’t seem to get it.
As to the film itself — writer-creator Julian Fellowes hedges his narrative bets and wins. The two-hour historical glimpse brings back most of the key characters from the TV series while cleverly playing it safe. There are no bravura turns about social realities nor brutal losses seen so often each year on the “Downton” series on television.
In the film Fellowes opts instead for a re-visit of character profiles, some thin indeed, via the over-arching plot mechanism of the visit of England’s king and queen.
Nothing new there. A tried and true plot device seen in other English social dramas — but it does set in motion reactions of cast members that serve though some just walk in place.
As was usual in the TV series, the women, especially the downstairs maid Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt) and dowager countess Maggie Smith, still drive the plot for the most part — with the exception of strong scenes with Thomas the gay butler (Robert James-Collier) and the Irish in-law Tom Branson played to a star turn by Allen Leech.
And other main characters often return to form. Michelle Dockery’s Lady Mary picks up the nasty baton at the start with the aplomb of the bad Queen in Disney’s “Snow White” just turning from her mirror. Her sister Edith (Laura Carmichael) now married at a higher level in the peerage than those at Downton, gets the message and ignores Mary, who does loosen up.
In fact, everyone does due to Fellowes’ plot device of the King and Queen of the realm soon to arrive.
We get a few skillful bits — including an assassination attempt and predictable love scene but most of all we get what almost amounts to farce comedy as the Downton cast hits back at the patently ugly entourage staff of the royals out for blood sport against the Downton servants.
Fellowes the writer doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge wicked snobbery and Oscar Wilde would approve.
The other major character in the film is Downton Abbey itself. The photography of Ben Smithard captures the mansion in glorious shots, some a metaphor for the moods of the characters.
The direction of Michael Engler picks up the vision well.
Will there be a sequel? Ordained by royal decree, I’m sure. But the relative sweetness and glitter of 1927 must give way to the sobering ‘30s. One hopes Fellowes tells it as it was. At least in part.
The audience is there. Make the film and they will come.