One of the more interesting aspects of the long-running television series was how skillfully Julian Fellowes managed the transition from 19th century British mores to the 20th. From the introduction of the automobile to the radical concept of a chauffeur marrying into an aristocratic familly, almost every episode had some element of gradual change in the lives of upper class gentry and glimpses of how the downstairs servants could begin to see their aspirations materialize, frequently with the support of their benevolent upper class employers. While all this was happening, we had the best-written character of Lady Grantham, played to perfection by Dame Maggie Smith to represent the other side of these “advances” with her clever and witty pronouncements of the old-fashioned way of thinking and doing.
So it was particularly disappointing to see Fellowes’ graceful touch become heavy-handed in the movie version. The film begins with the announcement of an imminent visit from the King and Queen who will stay at Downton overnight. Without giving away the specific twists in the plot, there are hurt feelings among the staff at the planned usurpation of their usual jobs for this occasion and an overly absurd plan is hatched to level the playing field. Devoid of subtlety, it also defies credibility, particularly in several of the staff whom we have come to know so well over a long period of time. Concomitant with this is the introduction of homosexual freedom surfacing in a private club attended by a member of the staff, something that might be believable if it were not taking place during the hoopla of the royal visit. Other sub-plots involve theft, jealousy, adultery, illegitimacy and paternity rights and wrongs. It made me feel as if Fellowes was consulting his checklist of issues and inserting them without regard to logic or the long friendship and understanding most viewers would have with his characters who were very real to us.
To its credit, Downton Abbey is lush, scenic, photogenic and helped by a magnificent score. Fans of the series are legion and will see the movie regardless of its defects but I wish Fellowes had not sullied his almost perfect track record for having written every episode with this clunky finale. Too bad Lady Grantham wasn’t his editor for the screenplay.
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