Helmer vs. Holmes: ‘Downton Abbey’


Courtesy of Ayomi Wolff

Alex Holmes:

Rating: 9/10

“Downton Abbey” may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s hard to see anybody walking away from this not at least a little bit charmed. 

The feel-good movie of the year is based on the excellent TV show that follows the lives of the Crawley family, who live in exultant splendor in their mansion while their servants toil downstairs. Inevitably crowd-pleasing, the film adaptation doesn’t take full advantage of its new cinematic pedigree but remains a pleasantly satisfying continuation of the show’s core qualities.

Not the least of which is the witty writing by show creator and scribe Julian Fellowes. I hadn’t seen the show since it went off the air in 2015, but I was able to quickly remember each character and their key attributes thanks to efficient and undistracting exposition. A newcomer who has never seen the show may be lost at points, but the key characters remain easily distinguishable. 

Despite the many characters and relatively sparse runtime, the script is impressively tight. Every plotline stems from the inciting incident of the news that the English monarchy will be paying a visit to Downton. Nothing feels like filler, the pace is quick, and by the end, every dangling thread has been wrapped up neatly.

That neatness might be underwhelming for some, and there’s certainly a case to be against the movie’s dearth of high-stakes conflict. However, that’s just what the movie is going for. Bon mots, thrown like darts between characters, and overlapping dialogue are thoroughly entertaining, especially when delivered by the likes of Dame Maggie Smith and Michelle Dockery.

The entire cast is brilliant, but those two light up the screen each time they are on it. Smith as the Dowager Countess deftly switches between regal hilarity and subtle emotion in the best role of the film. Dockery’s sincerity and utterly down to earth reactions make Lady Mary Talbot a very real person. One scene towards the finale, a frank discussion between the two women about death, is one of the best-acted and most heart-wrenching scenes I’ve seen all year.

As I mentioned above, the new film isn’t all that cinematic, with the exception of a few soaring shots of the titular abode. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that the film feels more like an extended episode of the original series than its own entity. On the plus side, the score by John Lunn is just as good as ever. It provides a very velvety texture that sows the whole thing together.

“Downton Abbey” is a royally entertaining return to form that lets its audience soak up every little detail in its intricate world, from the great characters to the unrivaled production design. Director Michael Engler doesn’t make the best use of a larger budget, but the film worthily stands on its own as a phenomenally acted and written (and much needed these days) blast from the past.


Alex Helmer:

Rating: 5/10

While I’ve never watched a single minute of the “Downton Abbey” TV series and did not do any research on the history of these beloved characters, I went into this film with an open mind. And despite the fact that I’ve never been interested in the “Downton Abbey” TV show, I wound up really enjoying this film. 

“Downton Abbey” is actually quite charming. The score and production design integrate you into this posh setting alongside delightful characters. The film would be nothing without Maggie Smith’s character, Violet Crawley. Smith’s witty and charismatic performance further illustrates why she is one of the best actresses working today. Every member of the servant class stands out in the film. Not only was I more invested into their collective storyline compared to the rest of the cast, but characters like Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) and Mr. Carson (Kevin Doyle) are less wooden compared to the aristocrats of the family. Characters like Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) and Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern) feel like afterthoughts. Truth be told, I felt like dozing off whenever these lifeless patricians were on screen.

The film is a mixed bag of storylines, the best of which is the servant class of Downton Abbey’s battle with the servant class of the British Crown. Not only is the writing of this plotline absolutely rollicking, but the film sets it up in a way that makes you care about the outcome. Although the character of Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) is impeccable, her storyline, tied in with Imelda Staunton’s (Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter series), is somewhat lackluster. But by far the biggest flaw in the film appears in the form of a storyline involving Captain Chetwode (Stephen Cambell Moore) recruiting widowed Irishman Tom Branson (Allen Leech) to assassinate the King of England. In a film where the largest obstacles include Downton Abbey running out of hot water and losing the silver letter opener, a plotline involving an assassination attempt on the King is completely out of place, notably because it only receives about three minutes of build up.

I can’t emphasize this enough, but this film was not made for me. I was never interested in watching the “Downton Abbey” TV show. And despite numerous wooden characters and one particularly unwarranted storyline, “Downton Abbey” is an extremely charming film elevated by a witty script, sharp characters, and a remarkably investable plotline involving the servants. Even if you have little to no knowledge of the show, you might want to give this one a watch.