At first glance, it is easy to see why analysts had pegged “Downton Abbey” to earn a mere $16-20 million domestically in its opening weekend. It does not have a racially diverse cast; the audience at my screening was entirely white. The film is essentially a continuation of the television show, so there was a justifiable fear that only fans who had invested six seasons would want to drive to see this film. Anyway, is it not only elderly people who are fans? Social Security checks only go so far—maybe there just is not money available for the movie in the bank accounts of AARP members.
“Downton Abbey,” known as “Downton” by its fan-base, saw its doubters, but the movie laughed and shredded their low expectations into little itty-bitty pieces. According to Deadline’s Anthony D’Alessandro, it hauled in $31 million, well in front of its fellow openers “Ad Astra” and the new “Rambo.” Having seen the film, I can see why—it is very much not like “Rambo.”
In “Downton,” the stakes are relatively low. An impending visit of the king and queen ignite the plot, but the audience never gets the sense that the world will end. The worst-case scenario is a social faux pas, not half of the universe being wiped out. Personally, I found the movie to be a nice break from the gritty realism and tension found so often in modern media. One can escape for two hours to a world of British high society, a place where the story wraps up nicely in two hours and everyone has a happy ending.
The pacing of the film was spot-on. I rarely got the temptation to check my phone while I was waiting for something interesting to happen; rather, each event neatly follows the other, leaving little dead time. The cinematography was also a high point. It was a real treat to see the estate of Downton on the big screen in live color. Not a pixel is wasted.
On the other hand, the plot is a bit weak. The royals’ visit is the main plot, but there are at least nine separate subplots I was able to count. As you might expect, some are better than others. Why did they include an assassin trying to kill the king? Were they trying to reach that PG rating to appeal to the edgy geriatric demographic? I will say none of the new characters felt shoehorned in; everyone seemed as if they belonged.
In terms of acting, Maggie Smith is as magnificent here as she was in the series. Her comedic timing is impeccable, and she steals any scene she is in. Kate Philips also stood out as the Princess Mary, trapped in an unhappy marriage unable to divorce because of her position in society. A great actress can subtly convey emotion, and Philips is more than capable of showing feeling without any melodramatic monologues.
If you are cynical, make sure to skip this movie, as you will be sure to hate most aspects of it. The dialogue never descends to level of a soap opera, but it definitely toes the line. Although the show had its fair share of tragedy, tense situations always end up positively. If a servant gets arrested, he gets bailed out thirty seconds later. If Edith has a marital conflict, the monarchs resolve it with no downsides. Even a lost inheritance for Lord Grantham winds up okay because, as fate would have it, the new heir has fallen head over heels for one of the Downton crew members. Doom, gloom and despair are nowhere to be found.
Despite all this, there is no mystery as to why this crushed all expectations. People are tired of protagonists using assault weapons and brutal violence to deal with their problems. Feature films posing philosophical questions that make one doubt the fabric of society are passé. “Downton Abbey” provides a glimpse at a world where finding a butler who knows how to clean the silver is a major conflict. Who cares if our world is flooded with political upheaval, environmental pessimism and trade wars? Here, the audience can drift off to sleep as the cook plans meals. No matter when you wake up, you will not be watching a stressful scene, just regular people solving their problems. A sequel is in the works, and I am looking forward to it.