Oh dear. Admittedly, I wasn’t expecting to like this film, but neither was I expecting to despise it quite so much. I hadn’t realised I could feel simultaneously bored and irritated, that something could rile me so much while sending me to sleep.
I guess I’m not the target audience: I’ve never watched a single episode of the television series. But I enjoyed Gosford Park, the Julian Fellowes-penned movie that laid the foundations for the whole Downton edifice, and no one can deny this is a stellar cast. So, despite the dreadful trailer, I decided I’d give it a go.
I wish I hadn’t. This is a dreadful film. It’s like an interminable Christmas TV special, but I’m not lying on a sofa full of festive food and wine. I’m sitting in the cinema sipping water, wishing I were somewhere else.
Perhaps fans of the series will experience this differently; they’re already invested in the characters and understand their histories. For an outsider, the cast list is bewilderingly vast, the development sketchy. The plot revolves around a royal visit, which sends the household – both upstairs and downstairs – into a tailspin.
It’s not a bad premise, but it’s so artlessly drawn. The servants, it seems, are angry that the king and queen are bringing their own staff. They’re angry that they’re not allowed to toil and strive in ‘their own house’ (it’s NOT their house); furious that they’re to be prevented from skivvying for a few days. Quite aside from the obvious fact that the royal retinue cannot be a surprise to them – they work for the landed gentry; they know how these things work – it’s hard to believe that they wouldn’t be relieved to have the chance to rest up for a while, to peek at the monarchs while others do the donkey work. It’s comforting, I’m sure, for Baron Fellowes to believe the hot-polloi love nothing more than serving their masters. Whether it’s true or not is another matter completely.
The film purports to address this issue, by the way, as ‘revolutionary’ kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera) rails against the need to pander to royalty. Still, she feels the imagined slight as deeply as anyone, and – apart from a few grumblings – fails to upset any apple carts. Likewise, formidable matriarch Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith)’s rousing speech about the changing times fails to address any issues of unfair privilege, coming down in favour of the status quo. Of course, this is absolutely in keeping with her character, but its placing in the film (at the end, after much soul-searching, as the answer to the family’s worries) means that her avowal that the building will be integral to the family – no matter what social changes happen outside – seems like an authorial voice, a pronouncement that landowners are somehow deeply connected – and thus entitled – to their wealth.
And – apart from the brief strand about the illegality of homosexuality back in the day – it’s a boring story too.