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Downton Abbey's big screen version is as non-egalitarian as ever

Downton Abbey, the movie. It had to happen. But even on the silver screen, a series that has counted Michelle Obama, P-Diddy and Miss Piggy among those who love to bask in the fading glory of Britain’s feudal class arrangements remains pure television at its most mystifyingly addictive. The movie is just bigger, with even crazier storylines and more brawling below stairs. Warning: contains traces of added royalty for those not allergic.

The atmosphere at our screening was a little rest-home-day-trip but festive. The pinot gris flowed in the sure knowledge that soon Lord Grantham would be pouring himself a stiff one in the library – noblesse oblige – as a reminder that the aristocracy has been fortified not just by centuries of unearned privilege but also by an endless supply of gin, Dubonnet and Scotch.

As the movie opens, we follow a letter from the Palace to a train that might as well be leaving from Platform 9¾. We’re bound for a world as arcane and with bloodlines as hierarchical as anything at Hogwarts, and featuring some of the same actors. The music swells as we follow a Postman Pat-style mail van, then a chap on a motorbike wending up the drive to Downton – there’s movie-length time to fill – followed by delivery on a silver platter to Lord Grantham. “Heavens!” he says, as animated as if Julian Fellowes is feeding him his lines via a period earpiece. “The King and Queen are coming to stay.” The rest is a sort of bedroom farce without the sex. The servants first exult, then seethe, then plot, because the highlight of their benighted lives is the prospect of bowing and scraping to King George V and Queen Mary and it turns out the royals are bringing their own servants. I tried not to see the whole thing as a parable of the age of Trump, Boris Johnson and Brexit, but really. The Downton domestics and the palace help, who should be natural allies against their exploiters, are at each other’s throats.

There is always dismay at Downton at the unwelcome presence of Johnny Foreigner – remember when Turkish diplomat, poor Mr Pamuk, was uncivilised enough to die in Lady Mary’s bed? This time it’s royal cook Monsieur Courbet, played as if by Peter Sellers, who had to be made aware that his continental tomfoolery was unwanted in this ossified aristocratic outpost.

There’s a plot against the royal visitors that unfolds as creakily as Lady Violet’s attempt to resume the perpendicular after a too-ambitious curtsey. Entertaining enough, and Maggie Smith remains a highlight, although by now – it’s 1927 because Lady Mary has a scary bob – she must be Old Testament old. There may finally be intimations of mortality for the Dowager Duchess. Otherwise, at some point, someone was going to have to drive a stake through her heart.

Carson, holed up in his retirement cottage like Batman in his bat cave awaiting the call, comes back to help out because his replacement, Thomas, is distracted by being homosexual or something. Thomas takes off for a gay bar where things go awry, but he finds love in the end. This is classic Downton, scattering some socially progressive plot points, like opiate-laced lollies for the masses. But the film ends up as a ringing endorsement for non-egalitarian status quo because, apparently, that’s how the servants like it. They will fight, and commit minor arguably criminal acts, for the honour of being allowed to stand to attention, an arm stuck stiffly out, happily reduced to the condition of human bannisters, to assist their helpless betters into a car.

“One hundred years from now Downton will still be standing,” intones Carson reassuringly at the end. Whatever the future holds, there will ever be somewhere to film Antiques Roadshow. Whatever the future holds, we deserve everything we get.

Video: Universal Pictures NZ

This article was first published in the September 28, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.