|'Downton Abbey': King of the Soap Operas|
|By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic|
01:46PM / Thursday, September 26, 2019
Director Michael Engler's "Downton Abbey," a feature film continuation of the TV series that eluded me in its entirety during its very successful run, is full up with the stuff of royalty. I shouldn't laugh at the silliness of the outmoded form of government, which is truly my first inclination, big democrat that I am. But I'm reminded that I'm still counting on being invited to the coronation ball and hanging out a bit with the newly invested King Charles, should he yet ascend to the throne.
OK, OK, I still haven't written the letter. I've been putting it off for several decades, but still plan to get to it. It would explain that we are about the same age, and that I first became familiar with his family through the presence of an ashtray commemorating his young mom's investiture that had decorated our coffee table even before Blackie, our cocker spaniel, unexplainably disappeared after only a one day reign. But one digression at a time, if you will.
In any case, I would conclude in my request that our contemporaneity fully suggested to me that I, emanating from far humbler roots, unless you go all the way back to King Solomon, was the perfect pauper to his prince. And if he had time between the pomp and the circumstance of the festivities, perhaps we might compare the notes of our lives. Maybe he'd even let me have a nice tweed sports jacket as a souvenir of the occasion: "Here, take this to America with you. Wear it in good health, Mike."
These meanderings aside, in the audience I was a stranger in a strange land and, in such situations, feel myself to be an Alexis de Tocqueville, an objective observer unhindered by prior notions or passions. I knew not one character or their familiar trait — didn't know a Talbot from a Crawley, though Maggie Smith's role as the Dowager Countess Violet Crawley, snobbish, curmudgeonly keeper of the flame at the old homestead, quickly put me straight. In an award-worthy caricature so over the top that it perfectly nails down the obsession to social place and station, you could set Big Ben by her loveable arrogance.
She is the rock solid if albeit craggy keystone to the story, her particular concern about the direction of her inheritance actually just one of at least a dozen subplots that slot in and out of the script as the good folks at Downton prep for a suddenly scheduled stop by the King and Queen.
It is a soap opera on steroids, here polished to a buff equaling the shine of the Grantham silverware which, by the way, becomes a minor issue.
This, of course, will include love affairs and/or troubled marriages on four levels, all begging for resolution before the closing credits roll, lest we leave the theater crestfallen. There's Princess Mary, whose hubby is the aloof sort you wish had other obligations; there's the next tier down of aristocrats at Downton in need of Cupid's counsel; and then there are the romantic liaisons of the oh so devoted help, both the upstairs and downstairs varieties, that'll need sorting if things are to remain copacetic at Grantham.
Now, if soaps aren't really your thing, but you've found yourself in the obligatory tow of a significant other who is indeed a devout fan, there is some consolation in the movie's historically astute and colorful depiction of the era. Highlighted is the Downton microcosm of The Troubles, as the Irish call it, which leads to a bit of derring-do mixed into a sociopolitical mulling of the strife. But the respite is short. For the runway must be cleared for the soap opera within the soap opera, the Big Secret that's at the heart of the squabble between our favorite dowager and Imelda Staunton's Maud Bagshaw, the Queen's lady-in-waiting.
While the latter is claiming insertion into the Grantham lineage for, of all curiosities, her maid, and downplays the accompanying cash benefit to the title, I'm reminded of my rich sister's take on such disputes: "It's always about the money … especially if they say it's not about the money."
That noted, to the devotee there is a private joke to be enjoyed, and the heck with cynics like me. There is no discounting the enthusiastic laughing, oohing and ahhing engendered in audience members as obviously loyal to the franchise as the characters with whom they are enamored are loyal to the lord and lady of the manor. And truth be told, any smugness I might imply by repeating ad nauseam that "Downton Abbey" is a glorified soap opera, is nullified by my abject failure to guess the maid's true identity.
"Downton Abbey," rated PG, is a Focus Features release directed by Michael Engler and stars Maggie Smith, Michelle Dockery and Hugh Bonneville. Running time: 122 minutes