Film Review: DOWNTON ABBEY (UK 2019) ***

Downton Abbey Poster
The continuing story of the Crawley family, wealthy owners of a large estate in the English countryside in the early 20th century.


Michael Engler


Julian Fellowes (characters), Julian Fellowes (screenplay by)

DOWNTON ABBEY is a British historical period drama/comedy written by Julian Fellowes and directed by Michael Engler.  It is a continuation of the television series of the same name, created by Fellowes, that ran on ITV from 2010 to 2015.  Much of the original cast returns, including Hugh Bonneville, Jim Carter, Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton.   If nothing is known of this series, all is not lost.  The film stands on its own.  However, for those familiar and for those with a keen admiration for the series, a lot of nostalgia will be in place.

DOWNTON ABBEY works as the kind of pompous British fare that common audiences (like myself) like to look up to and to admire the British wealthy and royalty.  

The film is set in the fictional Yorkshire country estate of Downton Abbey in 1927, where it depicts the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their domestic servants in the post-Edwardian era—with the great events in history having an effect on their lives and on the British social hierarchy. 

TV series transitioned to film need a particular special event.  For the majority of TV series transitioned to film, a vacation abroad seems the most common excuse to warrant a full length feature film outing, examples being MUNSTER, GO HOME, HOLIDAY ON THE BUSES, KEVIN AND PERRY GO LARGE and most recently, ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS.  The excuse here for DOWNTON ABBEY is a royal visit to Downton Abbey by King George V and Queen Mary.

The film is grounded by the main plot of the King’s visit and the extensive preparations that go with the visit.  This main plot is not sufficient to hold the entire movie and several subplots are quite obviously inserted to support the story.  Among them are the gay exploits of the butler as he grows brave enough to eventually find romance in the times when gays were outlawed, the abuse of the Abbey household at the hands of the over-prude royal staff, the attempted assassination of the King, the quarrel of the Smith and Wilton characters and of course, some romance thrown in for good measure.  All work quite well just as the cooperation of the DOWTON ABBEY staff.

Academy Award Winner, Maggie Smith (way back when from THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE) is given the script’s best comical punch lines and thus steals the show.  The apt supporting cast do not fare much badly either.

This reviewer who sees more than 350 films annually with no time left for television, has not seen a single episode on TV, so take this review with a grain of salt.  However, a fellow film critic who is a total fan of the series was pleasantly pleased with the full length feature.  DOWNTON ABBEY is a pleasant enough feature on the TV series and with some luck, should win over a few converts as well.


Movie Review: THE LADY IN THE VAN (2015)

the_lady_in_the_van_poster.jpgTHE LADY IN THE VAN (UK 2015) ***1/2
Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Review by Gilbert Seah

There are several reasons to watch the new Maggie Smith, Nicholas Hytner and Alan Bennette collaboration of THE LADY IN THE VAN. For one, it is based mostly on a true story – the words that appear on the screen at the film’s start, signifying a modest comedy on life. And with an equally number of pleasures as well to be derived from the film.

Adapted from the based-on-fact hit West End play by Bennett (best known for THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE), the film’s title referring to a high-born homeless woman, known as Miss Shepherd (Dame Maggie Smith) fallen on hard times who finds temporary shelter parking her van in Bennett’s driveway — for fifteen years. It is a chronicle of the unlikely friendship between the writer (played by Alex Jennings) and the elderly eccentric who takes over his driveway.

The play and script is smart enough to have two protagonists – Miss Shepherd and Bennett. Bennett is seen as a double in the film. As explained – there is the man that writes and the one that lives. They speak to one another, the equivalent of the man talking to himself. He gives himself a perspective of his life, humorously as well as dramatically. He is a timid fellow, kind enough to look after his ailing mother as well as Miss Shepherd. In contrast, Miss Shepherd is ornery, impolite, and bullying Not all there, she claims to take advice from the Virgin Mary. And she smells bad. There is a mystery about the woman that is kept from Bennett and the audience but all is revealed by the end of the film. But Bennett, despite his very private nature, takes pity on her and says she can stay there for three months.
Miss Shepherd is seen to be one that hates music. She screams and scares away children that play music outside her van. But she has studied music in Paris and plays the piano. The reason for her current behaviour is an intriguing one, and one that Hytner uses to full effect.

But besides being a film about friendship and old age, it is mostly a film about life. The film depicts the bit seedy yet very respectable London neighbourhood of Camden Town (on the Northern Tube line). (I am proud to say I have lived there – though as a tourist and guest for 15 days and the film brings a good effective feel in of neighbourhood chivalry and friendliness.) The message about life in the film is an obvious one, though one mostly ignored. It is stated clearly at the end – to love life is to start living. It is, put subtly, in the writing of Bennett’s character – that he is not to put himself in the writing but to find himself in the writing.

Maggie Smith bares all in the film and she is not afraid of looking old, haggard and ugly for the role. It is a completely different role from her Oscar winning THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE. She would get my vote for her second Oscar.

THE LADY IN A VAN is a tale of life, playfully funny and authentically set in Camden Town, London. Great performances in a film relatively well directed from a clever script full of ripe dialogue.