New ‘Downton Abbey’ Film Offers More Anglophile Fetish Porn From the Master Himself
When I say Downton Abbey: A New Era is Anglophile fetish porn, that’s not a criticism. I love an overstuffed period drama as much as the next gay. The lives of the Granthams and the Crawleys and the foibles and melodramas of the upstairs/downstairs population of the Downton estate has been part of our lives now for over a decade on both TV and in the cinema, and we are living for it even when it devolves into strained believability and penny dreadful machinations, as in the case of this new Downton Abbey film.
Written by Julian Fellowes and directed by Simon Curtis, the latest excursion to the bucolic abbey is plot-heavy and heavy-handed, wildly funny at times, and primed for big revelations and exits (none of which will be discussed herein). It’s also pretty evenly bifurcated.
The Dowager Countess – the still-and-always magnificent Maggie Smith – has inherited a villa in the south of France from the late Marquis de Montmirail, much to the consternation of the family (and the Marquis’ wife). Lord Grantham and much of the Downton family and staff venture to that exotic faraway land to see the property and meet the widow de Montmirail (Nathalie Baye, as acidic as vinegar) and her son. There’s much handwringing over whether the Dowager Countess and the Marquis shared a brief and passionate love, and whether Lord Grantham’s babydaddy was French royalty.
Meanwhile, back at the abbey, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is overseeing a film crew renting Downton as a backdrop for a turgid melodrama, The Gambler, overseen by hot silent film director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy), and starring the strapping Guy Dexter (the perfectly cast Dominic West) and the elegant Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock), whose mysterious screen presence is shattered whenever she speaks and her vulgar East End accent pops out. Not an issue for a silent film, but when it’s ordered from the studio to turn The Gambler into its first audio production, Dalgleish knows that her future in film is nearing its end. Whose dulcet tones could be used to overdub the honking starlet’s nasality? Why does the handsome leading man pay no mind to the gobsmacked kitchen maidens watching the proceedings?Will the charming director entice Lady Mary to step out on her always traveling husband Henry?
Yes, the new Downton Abbey film is a giant soap opera, just as it’s always been. Yet these characters – and the performers who play them – are part of us as much as they are the landscape they so fully inhabit. While everyone is pleasant to see again, disappearing easily into their well-defined characters, there’s not enough for most of the cast to do. And, except for three minor roles, it’s the women who steal the film in much the same way they did the television series.
The biggest thief of them all is Maggie Smith. She can make a simple question such as “What is a weekend?” into the funniest line you’ve ever heard (believe me, in context, it is), and she has plenty of howlers provided to her by Fellowes here. She can be a show all by herself, but when she has a sparring partner like Penelope Wilton, the sweet and tart between them is the headiest concoction imaginable. And when she lays into her son about his patronage, she’s both frightening and hysterical. Her Dowager Countess, explored over the last decade or so, is a creation up there with her Miss Jean Brodie. She’s iconic.
Michelle Dockery continues to grow along with her Lady Mary. There’s warmth and maturity to her characterization here that feels fresh, as well as an ability to give in to her more ridiculous side. The brush with film celebrity lights her up; even though you know she thinks it’s beneath her dignity, she’s loving every second of it.
As for the men, Dominic West is just enough of a showboat to turn Guy Dexter into a dreamy joke of a leading man while also genuinely attractive and kind. Robert James-Collier as the lovelorn Barrow is given a reprieve from all the heartache of his past. And Kevin Doyle as Mr. Molesley is finally given more to essay than a bumbling, shy dolt. Doyle springs to life when Molesley – a movie fanatic – becomes first the script wrangler for the new talkie and then, as filming goes on, its screenwriter. The triumph of this sweet-natured man is infectious.
No doubt Julian Fellowes can dash new Downton Abbey film scripts off for the rest of his life (in between his work now for The Gilded Age). How many more Downton Abbey films we need is another matter entirely. If the story of the Granthams, et. al., was to end here it would be fine. And if they continue on into new decades and new tribulations, an audience will be there to follow them.