Well, that was a pleasant surprise! Embarking on a new phase of wishing only to see those films chosen with discernment, I wasn't sure at all whether this would be a satisfactory start. It was - and more than.
I'm one of the minority(?) who's never seen an episode of this internationally popular period TV 'soap', nor even part of any. Of course I was fully aware of the setting - historically, geographically and socially - there having been countless trailers and excerpts for years, so nothing came as a shock.
Reviews I've seen have generally been in the 'okay' to 'quite good' range, though none were wildly enthusiastic, and they all seem to be at one in determining this film as working equally well as a television instalment. Maybe so, though coming to it with no prior expectations might have been an advantage.
The plot is a simple one. 1927 - King George V, with Queen Mary, has engagements in Yorkshire and wishes to spend one day and one night at the Crawley mansion, the extravagant manorial residence of widow and matriarch Lady Crawley (Maggie Smith). In the upstairs/downstairs world it's those with status and titles (including Hugh Bonneville) who superficially at least take it more calmly, determined to do what has to be done, while the 'downstairs' servants tend to be more flustered, wondering if they can cope with what's expected of them. However, the cat is set among the pigeons with the arrival in advance of one of the King's snooty chief staff (David Haig) with the function of ensuring that the visit goes smoothly and is up to the required super-high standard. He's an obnoxious martinet of a figure (likewise the imported French chef) who settles in, looking down his nose and ordering everyone around with disdain verging on disgust - requiring the manor's own staff to make themselves invisible during the royal visit itself, and to leave his own bevy of royal lackeys to do all that's required. Fed up with this condescending attitude and pre-determined arrangements, the in-house staff decide to get their own back.......
Other TV regulars do their turns very ably, Jim Carter and other faces I can't quite put a name to.
Other notable cast members include Elizabeth McGovern, Matthew Goode and Tuppence Middleton.
The main friction element is between the Maggie Smith character and that of Imelda Staunton, both hardly hiding the fact that they loathe each other, daggers drawn at their every encounter, not even having the grace to smile, albeit insincerely, while they stab their verbals into each other.
There are several strands of sub-plot. one involving an assassination attempt on the king. Another noteworthy one is a particularly gentle, uassuming, gay friendship which spontaneously arises when one of the manor staff and one of the visiting royal entourage find they reciprocate feelings towards each other. The latter takes his new friend to a clandestine (as it had to be) gay jazz club which, while they're there, is invaded by the police and everyone rounded up and carted off to the police station. I found this depiction quite heartbreaking. The two men's relationship, probably not consummated in the short time they have, isn't showy, We only see one quick, furtive kiss between them, but it's lovely.
The script (by Julian Fellowes) is superior for most of the time. If it does sag a bit in the final minutes it's because there's the attempt to round things off, perhaps a bit too neatly.
This seems to be Michael Engler's debut as feature film director, though he has done considerable TV work, including having directed several episodes of 'Downton' so he's more than familiar with the characters and the actors playing them.
One further slight criticism is that there's too much overblown background score music when the visuals already say all that needs to be said.
Maybe if I'd been familiar with the TV programmes I'd have been less impressed with this film, though I hope that that itself can be a recommendation to anyone who, like me, is a Downton virgin - and one hopes that they, on seeing this, may derive the equivalent amount of pleasure from it as I did................7.
(IMDb....................7.8 / Rott.Toms - critics only.............6.6 )
1 hour ago