★★★★ - STUFF
- Given the success of the second-biggest TV show of the decade, it's difficult to remember that before Downton Abbey, Julian Fellows scripted a movie set in a similar world.
Directed by the great American ensemble expert Robert Altman, 2001's Gosford Park was a magnificent Upstairs Downstairs-meets-Agatha-Christie murder mystery set in an English country house. Like Downton, it featured a cadre of British actors and a scene-stealing Maggie Smith.
So those worried that the sometimes genteel sensibilities of the early 20th Century-set show would somehow be sullied or stumble because of a larger canvas need not have fretted – Fellows has form.
Likewise, turning beloved British TV shows into feature films showcasing the same cast is old hat. Everyone from On the Buses to Porridge, Rising Damp and George and Mildred had a stab at it around four decades ago.
Amusingly, Fellows' feature-length tale feels like something cooked up those '70s sitcoms. The year is 1927 and the Crawleys and their servants' economy drive is thrown into chaos by news of a Royal Visit. Queen Mary and King George V's imminent tour of Yorkshire is scheduled to include a lunch, parade, dinner and overnight stay at Downton.
While Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) jokes that they'll be sending someone "to check that Mrs Patmore isn't a Russian spy", the arrival of the King's "Page of the Backstairs" dismays the staff even more. They are to be relieved of their duties in preference to the Royal Household's key players.
Tensions are also high within the family's inner-circle. Among the Queen's staff is Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), a cousin of Lord Grantham. She and the Dowager Countess (Dame Maggie Smith) have been at loggerheads for years, due to the former's seeming unwillingness to name Lord Grantham as her heir. A showdown seems certain.
Taking Downton uptown has resulted in an entertaining and satisfying romp. Director Michael Engler (The Chaperone, as well as many of the best and most-popular TV shows of the past 20 years including Downton itself) does a terrific job of ramping up the opulence, while also giving all of the characters their moment in the spotlight. Gliding cameras allow viewers into every nook and cranny of the vast Abbey and the sumptuous costuming and set design truly sparkle (there's plenty of Antique's Roadshow-porn for those who were attracted to the show by such things).
Fellows' has also delivered a near pitch-perfect script (save for a somewhat breathless end-tying denouement). There's plenty of pomp and no little circumstance, as well as drama in the form of inclement weather, a boiler crisis, Republican ructions and missing mementoes.
Amongst a uniformly impressive cast, newcomers Staunton and Tuppence Middleton (The Imitation Game) are standouts, while Allen Leech's Tom plays a key role and Smith once again delivers the comedic highlights. Her battle with fellow Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix alumni Staunton is compelling viewing, while the Dowager's expected machiavellian moves and acerbic asides are present and correct. Don't be surprised to Smith her nominated for a Golden Globe for best supporting actress.
While the set-up is clearly designed to accommodate a sequel, Downton fans and lovers of British period dramas in general will be delighted to know, as Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) puts it, "can still put on a quite a show when required to".
- James Croot, STUFF