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Front Page - Friday, October 4, 2019

Just follow the crowd to avoid being lost in ‘Downton Abbey’

That gang’s all back in “Downton Abbey,” the theatrical offshoot of the popular Masterpiece series. Or so I was told. Having never seen a single episode of what my wife assures me is an outstanding drama, I felt like the only stranger at a party.

I thought there would be others like me – husbands who were dutifully letting their wife pick the movie for once. But it seemed everyone in the theater but me knew what was going on. The audience collectively gasped whenever a familiar character appeared for the first time, and everyone laughed at every one of Violet Crawley’s witty barbs. It appeared as though the audience was having a good time.

I wasn’t having a bad time, but for a while, I was lost. Relationships seemed to pick up where they left off at the end of the series and storylines were introduced midstride. I kept elbowing my wife for an explanation each time this happened, but stopped when I realized neither of us was going to be able to keep up.

Feeling adrift, I started wishing Julian Fellowes, the creator of the series and the writer for the film, had employed some of the clumsy expositional movie dialog that makes my ears ache. Such as:

Robert Crawley: “Good morning, Mrs. Patmore, the cook, and good morning Daisy, the former scullery maid who worked her way up to assistant cook, my wife and I would like a full English breakfast this morning.”

Mrs. Patmore: “Good morning, Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, and good morning, Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham. It will be our pleasure to serve you.”

But no. The script by Fellowes seemed to seep out of the very walls of the grand Yorkshire country estate in which the film is set and the characters that populated the screen appeared to truly live there.

It was as though a window in time and space had opened, and I was being afforded a view of people who were once the anchor of English society but no longer existed. This world they populated was full-bodied and firm, like a chewy wine, and had texture and weight that filled one’s mouth with rich flavors.

In other words, I was sucked in, and before I knew it I was laughing along with everyone else whenever Violet spoke.

A central plot of sorts does emerge. The opening scene follows a letter from the scribbling of the signature to the hands of Mr. Crawley, who declares the king and queen of England are coming to Downton.

This electrifies the household, but only for a moment. A member of the royal entourage throws ice water on everyone’s excitement when he arrives ahead of the visit and announces the king is bringing his own butler, cook and so on. This sits poorly with certain members of the staff, who conspire to undermine the outsiders and have their moment serving their king and queen.

This storyline serves as a coat rack on which all manner of personal dramas are hung. Although I wasn’t as emotionally invested in the characters as the viewers who had watched all six seasons of the series, these stories are elegantly told and beautifully stitched together, and in the end, it was clear the film is not a trivial extension of the show but a meaningful continuation of it.

Even if the story had not drawn me in, I would have enjoyed the cinematic experience “Downton Abbey” offers. It is an utterly gorgeous film, with breathtaking views of the estate and the surrounding countryside, as well as opulent visions of the interior of the manor. The editing is urgent and inspired. This is a handsome, well-crafted film.

Especially impressive is the way the different facets of the production seamlessly come together to tell the story. From the costumes to the set design and cinematography, every shot of the ornately dressed Lady Mary Talbot or Princess Mary implies these characters and the setting are one. Director Michael Engler didn’t just fill the screen with pretty pictures; he told the story visually.

Maybe “Downton Abbey” is a bit overstuffed, and perhaps some storylines are given a short rift or resolved too easily, but even for rookies like me, the film is worth a trip to theater to experience it on a large screen. Plus, fans of the show are going to love it – or so I was told.