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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Engler’

There was a time, a few years back, when half the new movies coming out of Hollywood seemed to be adaptations of old TV shows to the medium: Mission: Impossible, Charlie’s Angels, The A-Team. This sort of thing has been going on for decades, of course, and shows no signs of letting up (the Mission: Impossible franchise is now Tom Cruise’s most reliable revenue stream, while we are threatened with a new Charlie’s Angels movie before the year is out), but it certainly felt like something of a peak when obscurities like The Mod Squad and SWAT were being dusted off for a big screen outing. Such is the nature of modern cinema, I suppose: there’s currently no bigger risk than originality.

British attempts at this sort of thing go back nearly as far: in fact, back in the 1950s, Val Guest and Hammer Films were actually making films based on radio shows. The British big-screen spin-off is usually a cash-in, made while the TV show in question is still a going concern or at least a recent hit, and most of them have been based on comedy programmes. The results have been extremely variable – some of the Monty Python films are regarded as genuine classics, and the two Inbetweeners films made a stack of money, but on the other hand the Are You Being Served? film is practically a shorthand summary of the many reasons why this sort of thing is a bad idea.

Of course, they have done movies based on drama series, too: there have been a number of Sweeney films, a big-screen Callan, and (not that long ago) a Spooks movie. Appealing to a rather different demographic, however, is the current release of Michael Engler’s movie version of Downton Abbey. I don’t just mean that this film features fewer men in overcoats delivering knuckle sandwiches to each other than the typical Sweeney film; Downton Abbey, whatever you think of it, has become a globally successful entertainment, even to the point where they do jokes about it in Marvel movies. It may be a few years since it was actually on TV, but the calculation seems to have been that an audience exists that will be prepared to leave the house and pay to watch what is essentially a new instalment (the $90 million return so far on a $20 million budget suggests this was a shrewd assessment).

Full disclosure: I never watched Downtown Abbey on the telly and never felt like I was missing out on much, either; I’m not saying I would have walked five miles and stuck my head down a sewer in order to avoid watching it, but it’s just not my cup of tea. However, I did find myself taken along to watch Engler’s film by various family members who were more than passingly familiar with it. In brief, they all found it to be inoffensively engaging and occasionally rather amusing, and if you are a die-hard Downtonite this may be all you need to know.

The film opens with a lavish credits sequence concerning a letter being written and delivered, which kind of sets the tone for the high-octane thrills which follow. It turns out that the King and Queen are about to embark on a trip round the country and are intent on spending the night at Downton Abbey. Needless to say, this sends everyone into a proper tizzy, from genial good-egg Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) to the assistant cook (Sophie McShera).

It seems like everyone has their own particular concerns as the royal visit approaches: is the best silver going to be polished correctly? Can the boilers be relied upon to keep functioning? Will there be enough chairs for everyone? Primarily, though, the Downton domestic staff are somewhat peeved to learn that they are to be displaced by the King’s own servants for the duration of his time at the house. Can they really be expected to take this kind of treatment?

Mixed in with all this (and there are a great many other plotlines, some of them very minor indeed) is a subplot about an attempt to assassinate the King. I would hazard a guess that in 90% of films, this would be the main focus of the script, and the climax would see the domestics showing their quality by coming together to save the King’s life, a deed for which they would receive due gratitude and respect. However, this is not the kind of level on which Downton Abbey operates. The assassination plotline is resolved quite early on, without a great deal of fuss, and everyone carries on as they were for the rest of the film. The message is clear: this is not a film about tension and excitement. It’s a film about using the right knife for the fish course and knowing your place in Downton’s labyrinthine social ecology.

It’s all a bit like HG Wells’ The Time Machine, with the feckless but presentable upper classes wandering about in self-absorbed bemusement, while the much more capable domestic staff get on with ensuring that everything actually works – although, once again, there is never any real prospect of Mr Carson the butler (Jim Carter) actually eating the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), as that would be far too surprising.

Of course, to say all this is to miss the point of a film like Downton Abbey, which is absolutely not intended to surprise the audience – what it is there for is to deliver more of exactly the same sort of thing as the TV series on which it is based. (I get the sense of the movie jumping through hoops in order to ensure all the main players are in their customary positions, even though some of them departed them at the end of the show’s run.)

However, as a newcomer I couldn’t help noticing a number of things. It is true that the film contains a number of very capable actors, Bonneville, Carter and Smith most prominent amongst them – on the other hand, such is the diffuse and episodic nature of the film that none of them actually get much to do beyond simply showing up and doing their usual business. More problematically, from my point of view at least, is the essentially complacent nature of the film. The main thrust of the plot concerns a group of people who are utterly determined to go out of their way to be as servile and deferent as they possibly can: the film doesn’t so much let a particularly rigid form of the British class system go unquestioned, as swooningly celebrate it.

Of course, I suppose much of the charm of Downton for its many fans is the very fact that it depicts a picture-book version of a world that hasn’t so much vanished as never existed in the first place (who was it who said that progressive escapism tends to look to the future, while the reactionary kind is set in the past?) – somewhere that is clean, and essentially untroubled, where everyone knows their place and sticks to it. (The film is not entirely backwards-looking, but a storyline about the lives of gay men in the 1920s feels laboriously crowbarred in.)

Perhaps this is why the focus of the film remains so firmly on the continuing characters, with the newcomers in distinctly secondary roles even when they are played by people who are relatively famous (Stephen Campbell Moore shows up, along with Geraldine James and Tuppence Middleton). The rules and regulations of Downton Abbey supercede conventional movie-making concerns. In the end it only barely feels like a genuine film at all; it could be just a particularly lavish and extended episode of the TV show. Which was surely the idea; but whether this is the film’s biggest strength or weakness is a matter of perspective.

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