The relationship between television and the movies has been fraught since the former’s entrance into virtually every American home took butts out of theater seats and, therefore, money out of exhibitors’ and studios’ wallets. However, the battle over the identities of TV and cinema as separate arts and their respective inherent qualities has never been more prevalent since the early reign of “Peak TV,” the advent of narrative television as a dominant cultural force created by the confluence of new technologies, box office woes, industry shake-ups, and art-maker migrations across medium dividing lines.
However, saying that the tube has completely replaced the silver screen as the dominant artistic force in popular culture is absurd; their form and functions operate under different aesthetic values. All motion pictures, regardless of origin, are worthy of study in and out of their respective fields – and even those boundaries are now shifting in academic and critical circles. That conversation came to a (ahem) peak after David Lynch’s magnum opus, the shape-shifting and unclassifiable Twin Peaks: The Return, aired its 18 hours on cable channel Showtime over the summer of 2017. A few months later, some film critics were lambasted for including the work in their year-end coverage. TV critics thought it condescending to elevate Lynch’s newest to the level of film because of his auteur status in the cinematic medium, its inclusion suggesting that all other TV was artistically unworthy of film critics’ list-making efforts. Other film writers took umbrage at this inclusion of The Return in end-of-year discussions about cinema, but such objections just raise more questions. Skeptical critics covering both mediums tend to ignore the great small-screen work of figures like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) is frequently cited as a towering cinematic masterwork even though its roots and episodic structure are televisual.
It’s likely that Downton Abbey – too posh, apparently, for a “The Movie” subtitle – director Michael Engler’s big-screen continuation of the hit British television show, will be only be a footnote in further explorations of this topic. The reason for this isn’t anything so simple as its sequel status. Look no further than those awful Sex and The City films and the great British tradition of tentpole films made for the big screen but which nonetheless fit within a TV series’ narrative. Rather, it’s because future consideration of Downton Abbey will be limited to its box office success (and there’s been plenty of that). The film itself is just not good, no matter how one chooses to classify it. Picking up the story of the Crawley family – residents of the titular British manor – and their servants in 1927, two years after the series’ narrative ended, Engler and writer / series creator Julian Fellowes present a sequel that's content to wallow in exactly same milieu without any regard for stakes, progression, or character development of consquence. Instead, Downton Abbey is a project which reeks of intellectual property holders maximizing cash flow. Carbon copies of two or three episodes of the show have been inelegantly smashed together in order to put a movie-ticket premium on the follow-up for which fans were (supposedly) clamoring. Maybe the finished product here would have been better if Fellowes had waited a quarter of a century, as Lynch did before his Return.
This cinematic sequel does illustrate one aspect of the great TV vs. film war: Certain properties and their modes of storytelling seem to favor one medium over the other. The series, which came stateside to PBS just a few months after becoming a sensation in its homeland, was initially soapy enough, witty enough, and political enough with a high-class veneer to tap into audience’s innate fascination with its upstairs vs. downstairs dynamic. The moderate critical praise and pop cultural cachet petered out quickly during the show’s run, although a core audience stuck with the show to the end. Fellowes had already been to this early 20th-century manorial British setting before, winning an Oscar for penning Robert Altman’s big 2001 comeback Gosford Park, a far superior proto-Downton that packs into two hours more keenly observed humanity and sharp wit than a full season of the show. (According to the director, Gosford itself was inspired by the granddaddy of all films in this micro-genre, Jean Renoir’s 1939 feature The Rules of the Game.) Altman’s preference for improvisation over fidelity to the script has always presented a conundrum in assigning authorship to his finished products and has been a point of contention since Fellowes won his Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Gosford in 2002. Downton Abbey has always sort of felt like a means for the British writer to reclaim some ownership of Gosford, proving him capable even without a great American director at his side.
However, the entirety of the now six seasons and a movie – beating Community (2009-15) to the cross-medium punchline – has colored the answer to the Gosford question with more complexity. Fellowes’ follow-up film has now retroactively established that Downton Abbey works well on TV because it’s passable as pretty background noise with a story. Sitting in a dark movie theater, unable to fold laundry, check Twitter, or do weekly meal preparation means that a viewer is locked up in Downton, forced to watch feeble tendrils of narrative wriggle outward without any direction, purpose, or resolution.
That the occupants of Downton have remained stagnant both in their positions and character over the two-year diegetic gap shows a lack of imagination on the creators’ part in forming an interesting or recognizably human world. All the Downton characters are back to prepare the estate for a Royal visit—with Geraldine James as Queen Mary, Simon Jones as King George V, and Kate Phillips as Princess Mary – although some new personalities also show up to overstuff this already-full potato sack. After having been relegated to garden duty, ex-butler Carson (Jim Carter) – along with the rest of the servants – returns to the abbey proper to fulfill his life’s purpose and serve his king and queen. Downton’s new butler Thomas (Robert James-Collier) sees his control over the estate’s day-to-day functioning upended by Carson's aborted semi-retirement. Elsewhere, the kitchen staff – including favorites Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) and Daisy (Sophie McShera) – refuse to bow down to a hoity-toity French chef (Philippe Spall), who attempts to supplant them during preparations for a royal dinner. The justification for this big-screen sequel reveals a deep-seated fealty to the monarchy – present throughout Downton Abbey and in many of its fans – undermining this continuation’s stabs at democratic dissent. Moments in which characters express doubts about their country’s political system seem to have been included only to combat criticism of the show’s conservative inclinations. This portraiture of political complacency comes across as particularly noxious pandering in a time when dangerous nationalism is on the rise both in the film’s country of origin and stateside.
The achingly low, dull stakes faced by the downstairs crew is best only slightly by the upstairs drama. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is in the middle of a minor existential crisis: After she’s inherited Downton, should she continue the Crawley tradition of maintaining the estate and its staff, or sell it all off and go live in the countryside? (She won’t, of course. How would Downton Abbey 2: Back in the House happen otherwise?) That’s quickly dispensed with as she becomes embroiled in an assassination attempt (!) that might possibly involve her brother-in-law, the Republican, anti-monarchist Tom (Allen Leech), who’s also got his eye on a new love interest. Like all the knotted-up narrative threads in Downton Abbey – and there are so many of them that recapping them here would be torturous for this writer and the reader – these subplots quickly dissipate into meaninglessness. Virtually all the characters are unchanged by the film’s end, and while dynamism is not necessarily required of any film or television work, it would at least serve as a source of cathartic entertainment for viewers. Predictably, the sole exception here is any time the Dowager Countess (Dame Maggie Smith) and cousin Isobel (Penelope Wilton) are at each other’s throats, exchanging their trademarked verbal barbs. Their sparring triad with the Queen’s companion, Maud (the great Imelda Staunton) – who also happens to hold the purse strings to the Crawley fortune – eventually evolves into a moving salute to long-standing familial and interpersonal history triumphing over resentment and bitterness.
Martin Scorsese recently landed in hot Film Twitter water for asserting that Marvel movies aren’t cinema, stating to The Guardian, “Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” After 23 MCU entries, the theme park comparison isn’t a particularly hot or fresh take, although most critics of the mega-franchise tend to instead label it as ultra-expensive television. Using “television-like” in a pejorative sense is analogous to Scorsese’s lament, and it’s clear that with the volume of great storytelling being produced for the small screen, such an assessment is far from fair. Without aligning with Scorsese on the Marvel properties specifically, there’s still a kernel of truth in his statement about the type of motion pictures – whether theatrical feature or episodic TV series – that take up the most cultural oxygen and reap the lion’s share of the financial rewards. His description applies perfectly well to the silver screen visit to Downton Abbey, except the biggest thrill here rests on whether a repairman can fix a water heater or not.