Friday 20 September 2019

Class act makes satisfying jump to the big screen

Downton Abbey (PG, 122mins) ***

The Earl and Countess of Grantham get a visit from the King and Queen of England
The Earl and Countess of Grantham get a visit from the King and Queen of England
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Did Downton trigger Brexit? Ok, I'm being slightly facetious, but the nostalgic period drama is a UKIPer's dream, and one can easily imagine Rees Mogg purring like a Cheshire cat as he settles down to watch a show where Englishness predominates, all shoes are shined and the working classes know their place.

Julian Fellowes' take on the early 20th century British class system is so benign, it's morally suspect, but in fairness, he's always spiced things up by throwing mildly controversial themes into the mix, like PTSD, marital strife and the Anglo-Irish War.

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None of this, though, can long derail the sunny harmony that prevails at Downton, a venerable Yorkshire estate presided over by the kindly, but exasperated Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville). The Earl hunts and eats a lot and peevishly asks "whatever is the matter now" when rows break out between his servants, who are essentially his children - silly, distractable bickerers who live for the occasional words of praise bestowed on them by their employers.

On the TV show, which ran for six seasons, Fellowes brilliantly juggled a plethora of storylines that explored and sometimes entangled the lives of servants and toffs, and had enough moments of wit and insight to make the soapy melodrama digestible. There were tragedies, a mounting body count, but all the major characters not whacked by Fellowes return in this sparkling, silly and beautifully coordinated feature film.

It's 1927 and the Earl and Countess of Grantham are enjoying a welcome break from familial incident when the postman delivers a bombshell. King George and Queen Mary have been forced by irksome duty to visit rain-sodden Yorkshire, and will grace the Crawleys by stopping at Downton for a night. This news unleashes pandemonium in the servants' quarters, where head cook Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol) becomes so excited one fears she may at any moment spontaneously combust.

Assistant cook Daisy (the excellent Sophie McShera) is less impressed, and is dubbed 'Robespierre' by Mrs Patmore when she loudly declares that the royals are an anachronism. Still, even Daisy is secretly excited, while housekeeper Mrs Hughes' (Phyllis Logan) chest expands with pride to bursting point. Veteran butler Mr Carson (Jim Carter) is dragged out of retirement to help, but the Downton crew are dealt a heavy blow when it emerges that the King will arrive with his own personal set of underlings.

Mrs Patmore will be usurped in her own kitchen by a snooty continental with a waxed moustache (bloody French), Mrs Hughes locks horns with a Teutonic-looking female who acts as royal housekeeper (bloody Germans), while Mr Carson is about to be out-buttled by a palace flunkie who styles himself "the master of the backstairs".

Upstairs, meanwhile, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) has been handed the unenviable task of stage-managing the royal visit, which may be sabotaged by her scheming granny. For the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) has a bone to pick with one of Queen Mary's attendants, Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), a childless cousin with a sizeable inheritance she is refusing to bequeath to Lord Grantham. And son-in-law and former chauffeur Tom Branson (Allen Leech) must stow his socialist and Irish republican sentiments and bow and scrape like the rest of them. Trouble brewing then, but Fellowes does a fine job of keeping his various balls in the air, balancing pathos and intrigue with splashes of repartee. Smith's comic timing is superb, and she knocks every joke that's pitched up to her out of the park, while Leech handles a bigger workload than usual with breezy charm.

Some of my colleagues, who are not unintelligent, became muddled during the press screening, and pointed out afterwards that if you haven't watched the TV show, you might be confused as to who everyone is. This is true, but overall, Fellowes was wise not to make too many concessions to new viewers because this film is very much for the initiated, who will find it a sumptuous treat.

And while it is sickening to watch honest working people bow and scrape before preened and pampered wasters whom time, money, privilege and chance have deemed their superiors, Downton Abbey is such a harmless and charming confection that it becomes possible to suppress one's inner socialist for the duration.

Films coming soon...

The Kitchen (Melissa McCarthy, Elisabeth Moss, Tiffany Haddish, Domhnall Gleeson); Ad Astra (Brad Pitt, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland); The Farewell (Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin)

Extra Ordinary (15A, 94mins) ***

A ghost story with a puckish sense of humour, Extra Ordinary leans heavily on the comic talents of Maeve Higgins - a wise decision as it turns out. She is Rose Dooley, a lonely rural driving instructor haunted by the death of her father. He (Risteárd Cooper) was a supernatural investigator, and Rose also had a gift, but she hasn't touched a ghost in years until a widower called Martin (Barry Ward), who's being bullied by his late wife, begs her to take on his case. Written and directed by Enda Loughman and Mike Ahern, Extra Ordinary is a bit frenetic at times, but very amusing, and Higgins is at her deadpan best.

Hustlers (16, 110mins) ***

In a compelling opening sequence, New York City stripper Dorothy (Constance Wu) takes us through an average, grubby evening at the lap-dancing joint where she works. It's 2007, Wall Street is awash with money, and pumped-up traders are spending like drunken sailors. When Dorothy enters the orbit of Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), a maternal veteran, they join forces to maximise profits. And when times get tough, Dorothy and Ramona start lacing their clients' drinks and maxing out their credit cards. Hustlers is nicely made, Lopez and Wu are good in the leads, but this fact-based drama is overcome by moral confusion.

For Sama (No Cert, IFI, 100mins) ****

The ongoing war in Syria has faded from the headlines, and the natural tendency when faced with such a high wall of human suffering is to throw up one's hands and look away. In an attempt to bring the world to its senses, some fine documentaries have appeared in recent years, and this one began as a video diary. Waad al-Kateab joined protests against Assad's rule in 2012, and For Sama follows her through the following five years, as she watches her beloved city of Aleppo being reduced to rubble, and gives birth in appalling circumstances to a baby girl, for whom this film is named. It's powerful stuff.

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