Downton Abbey at the cinema: TV-sized acting that looks grotesque on the big screen

The film leaves nothing left to ridicule, no cliché unexploited and no spectacle to recommend it.

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Ever since Julian Fellowes won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 2001 for the superb Gosford Park, a who-cares-whodunnit set in a British country house in the 1930s, the rumour has persisted that none of his work survived in the finished film, with every line cast aside by a director notorious for favouring improvisation. Fellowes may indeed have written the picture (he insists that 90 per cent of the dialogue is his), but it was Robert Altman who marshalled it before the cameras and mussed it up, making it look and sound as though it wasn’t written at all.

Subtract Altman, who died in 2006, and put in his place Michael Engler, a TV journeyman with no cinematic experience, and the result is the Downton Abbey movie, in which the cast is directed by someone whose knowledge of human behaviour appears to have come from an afternoon at Madame Tussauds. As the Earl of Grantham, Hugh Bonneville drifts from room to room like a confused patient searching for the bedpan, while his co-stars wait in a quiet corner of the grounds or in front of the fireplace to confess that they’ve been stealing the cutlery/are leaving their husband/have a secret lovechild and/or a terminal illness. Each emotion or change of heart is semaphored with TV-sized acting that looks grotesque on the big screen. You half expect the twist of the film to be that these aren’t early-20th century aristocrats at all, but a group of former thespians convinced they are starring in a period drama when in fact they’re in a nursing home for the tragically bewildered.

The show, which amassed more awards in its six series than Downton has soup spoons, was conceived originally as a Gosford Park spin-off and retained several elements from that film: a plush location (in this case, a fictional Yorkshire estate), the period setting (the sixth series ended in 1925) and a plum role for Maggie Smith as a dowager who never opens her mouth unless she can be sure of offending at least five people. Her every poisonous word is delivered in a voice that sounds like a scab cracking.

As the film begins, it is 1927 and the household is in a tizzy preparing for the imminent arrival of the King and Queen. I won’t say the drama is underpowered but the orchestra does get frightfully excited whenever the gravel on the driveway is raked or anything with a running-board pulls up in front of the house. Inside, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is worried about the mark on the carpet in the Blue Room, and the Earl has mislaid the letter-opener with the regimental crest. The weather has turned beastly (“As if things weren’t bad enough without a thunderstorm!”), the boiler is on the blink (“That’s all we need!”) and Mr Barrow (Robert James Collier) has bad news about the silverware: “We haven’t done the final buffing-up.” In desperation, Lady Mary pops on her best cloche hat and pleads with the retired Mr Carson (Jim Carter) to return to Downton (“I’ll be there in the morning, milady”) while Mr Barrow skulks off to a male-only barn dance to do some buffing-up of his own.

Below stairs a miniature revolution is fomenting. “This country needs a shake-up,” says Daisy (Sophie McShera), earning her a telling off from Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol). But when the royal party turns up with its own staff and even a fancy French chef in tow, that’s beyond the pale. After a hastily convened meeting in the wine cellar, the servants decide to take back control by rustling up a meal fit for a king. Who needs the fancy-pants French? The desire for autonomy is contagious, spreading to Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), who cries: “I just want to own my life!” There is unlikely to be any Gosford Park-style controversy over whether this screenplay really was the work of Fellowes, who made jolly predictions in 2016 about leaving the EU (“We will have unfettered access to all sorts of other world markets”) and railed against “rules we have not wanted or asked for or voted for”.

Without an effective film-maker to temper or complicate Fellowes’s adulation of the upper classes and his puréeing of social history, they are left to stand unchecked. Engler’s biggest contribution is to point the camera at a wooden wireless radio that screams “Look at me, I’m from the past!”, and to throw in endless establishing shots of Downton sitting in the sunlit uplands, but you couldn’t in all good conscience call it directing.

In 1998, Gary Sinyor made Stiff Upper Lips, an underrated spoof of the British costume drama (its original title was Period!), while around the same time Eric Idle wrote his own parody called The Remains of the Piano. Such send-ups would be superfluous in the age of the Downton Abbey movie, which leaves nothing left to ridicule, no cliché unexploited and no spectacle to recommend it aside from the sight of fine actors (Smith, Penelope Wilton, Imelda Staunton) trying to redeem a script that makes Catherine Cookson look like The Wire

Downton Abbey (PG) 
dir: Michael Engler

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 11 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron’s legacy of chaos