Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

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September 2019

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Downton Abbey Is a Welcome Return Bound to Satisfy Long-time Fans

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews

The series finale of Downton Abbey perfectly wrapped up the show in a way that left plenty of room for a return visit to the great country estate. For some, the film might seem superfluous, an unnecessary epilogue to a series that already saw a proper ending. The familiar sounds of Downton’s theme song coupled with the first shot of the beloved castle are bound to warm the hearts of dedicated fans eager for a few more hours spent with these characters.

To creator & screenwriter Julian Fellowes’ credit, he knows when to not tinker with a formula that already works. As a movie, Downton Abbey closely resembles the Christmas specials that capped off each series, a bit more of a cinematic feel than the average episode, but not much more. The extensive helicopter shots of Highclere Castle are just about the only aspect that set the film apart from its source material.

The film makes quick work of reassembling the pre-finale status quo of the series. Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) enjoys his retirement for all of five minutes before being summoned back to Downton. The post-service lives of Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) and Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) are practically whisked out of memory. There are even kitchen maids present for the first time since the end of series five.

With the King and Queen set to visit Downton, the film finds itself a suitable plot to serve as the backdrop for all the side plots that make the series so beloved. As a show, Downton has always pulled off the big moments quite well, but the show has always been about the little moments. The film possesses all the trimmings of a feature while never losing sight of the smaller-scale magic between the characters that made Downton come alive.

As expected, there’s a fair amount of over-the-top melodrama that seemingly comes out of left field. Fellowes finds a way to include subplots for seemingly every single character, some that work better than others. Even the new characters, particularly the King’s attaché, find themselves with thoroughly fleshed out storylines.

There are a couple of plots that feel a bit stuffed in, clearly designed in service to the characters rather than the narrative. The Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) is never short on one-liners, though, like series six’s overly-drawn out hospital plotline, her talents might have been better spent on a nobler cause. The absence of Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode) from the bulk of the narrative left Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) to focus primarily on the visit, bound to disappoint those who wanted to see a bit more from the show’s leading actress. Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), the often put-upon middle child of the Crawley family, supplies much of the emotional drama.

Like Lady Mary, Mr. Barrow (Rob James-Collier) finds himself looking like a bit of an odd-man-out despite being a central figure in the show’s narrative. Much of this is a product of the film’s desire to integrate his butler predecessor Carson back into the heart of Downton. Longtime fans of Mr. Barrow will undoubtedly find themselves smiling at the story carved out for the closeted servant.

Much of the narrative is totally over-the-top in a way that only seems fitting for a film designed solely to give longtime fans two more hours with the characters they love. There’s absolutely no learning curve present for newcomers to Downton, or even casual fans who might not remember where Daisy (Sophie McShera) left things off with Andy (Michael C. Fox) or the fate of Lord Grantham’s (Hugh Bonneville) valet Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) who spent much of the series accused of various murders.

The viewers who found the very idea of a Downton Abbey movie unnecessary will certainly remain unconvinced. For a show about change, the film seeks to uphold the status-quo as much as possible, only throwing a cursory glance toward the themes that drove the show. This story already has an ending.

For those of us who long for the Sunday evenings spent with the Crawley family and their servants, Downton Abbey hits practically every note. The narrative isn’t perfect, but Fellowes and director Michael Engler know how to give fans exactly what they want. Revivals often tinker with the formula just to switch things up. Downton Abbey plays the tunes everyone wants to hear, an immensely satisfying follow-up to one of the great television programs of the twenty-first century.

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Tuesday

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November 2014

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Season 5 of Downton Abbey Bides Its Time While Waiting for the End

Written by , Posted in Blog, Downton Abbey, Pop Culture

Change has always had a consistent presence on Downton Abbey. Being a period drama, we have a fairly good idea of where the show is going to go as it creeps closer to its inevitable finale. Despite this, the show has done a remarkable job in breathing new life into the old house and decaying aristocratic society.

We saw this particularly in season three with the arrivals of Alfred, Jimmy, and Ivy, which gave the show’s dynamic a breath of fresh air. The youth movement did wonders to negate the feeling that from here on out, life at Downton would veer from the extravagant to the simplistic. With Alfred’s departure in series four, Ivy’s after the Christmas Special, and Jimmy’s after the first episode of series five, that youthful energy is all but gone, leaving Daisy in a similar holding pattern she was in at the start of the show.

The absence of the three of these characters isn’t a big loss from a story perspective. Eight episodes is hardly enough time to adequately address the show’s ensemble cast anyway. Their departures address something that we’d all rather avoid. Things are winding down and now it’s starting to show.

The future was a predominant theme is season five. Carson, Hughes, Patmore, and the Bates all made arrangements for their retirements while Tom continued to grapple with his desire to leave for America while taking Sybbie’s best interests into consideration. Lord Grantham continued to weigh the interests of the village against his obligation to preserve the way of life that can be threatened by those whose interest lie solely in monetary game. Mrs. Crawley debates a marriage proposal to the disdain of Lady Violet, who fears losing her treasured companion as selfish as that may be.

Problem is, this is all familiar territory. Edith and Tom’s storylines are merely continuations of plots from last season that could, and probably should have been wrapped up. Lady Rose’s late-season courtship with Atticus is just about the only fresh plotline to be had other than Mrs. Crawley, who unexpectedly found herself in possession of one of the show’s better stories.

The Bates remain the biggest thorn in Julian Fellows’ paw. He has never really known what to do with them. Sadly, this has resulted in yet another murder plotline that’s even droller and tedious as the first. It’s hard to imagine that #freebates was ever a legitimate fan rally as the couple hasn’t had a positive moment in years.

Fan sentiment also provides a roadblock for Lady Edith and her illegitimate child. It’s sad story. It isn’t a particularly interesting one and Edith’s years of being an annoying/whiney character didn’t do the plot any favors. After five seasons of watching her mope around, it’s hard to care.

This season had a few shining moments worth remembering. Miss Bunting quickly became of the most hated characters in the show’s history and Fellow’s timed her depature perfectly as to not allow her to overstay her welcome (or rather unwelcome). Thomas received redemption of sorts from Dr. Clarkson in one of the season’s most touching moments. Molesley was Molesley and as such, got his own article.

I watched an old season two episode in between episodes to see the contrast between then and now. It’s to be expected that shows drop off a bit as they get older. Even a worldwide phenomenon like Downton.

The problem is that Downton has an identity crisis, a problem that’s existed since the World War I storyline ended but was exacerbated by Matthew’s death. The show knows where it’s going, but it doesn’t know what to do with itself in the meantime. It seems to be a fairly safe assumption that next season will be the final one, which may not be such a bad idea.

Downton Abbey is certainly more entertaining the most of what’s on TV, but it’s also clear that the show is well past its prime. Fellows overindulged in repetitive storylines and drew out others unnecessarily. It’s hard to call season five bad, but when the bar was raised so high from previous years, the drop in quality is a tad unfortunate. The Dowager would certainly not be impressed.

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