Downton Abbey: A New Era – film and soundtrack review
By Andrew Wallace
[Introducing Andrew to the AATA family]
I had the pleasure of an outing to see the latest Downton Abbey (DA) film courtesy of our town centre Riverside Reel Cinema. This being the second big screen instalment based on Julian Fellowes popular TV drama.
Essentially our generation’s version of Upstairs Downstairs concerning the various story arcs of the aristocratic Crawley’s and their devoted domestic servants, this post Edwardian drama surely has to be a rose-tinted guilty pleasure in today’s so-called meritocratic and post deferential age.
DA may be a dubious nostalgic exercise in its evocation of the idyllic English manor and its inevitable melancholic adaptation to the secular forces of modernity, but British costume drama do this kind of thing so well that most of us can’t help but be stirred by the kitsch.
Special regard must go to the superb orchestral soundtrack by John Lunn. Having provided the music throughout the five year run of the original series, Lunn has now progressed comfortably onto the wider canvass of the big screen. DA’s distinctive main theme of strings and piano clearly channel something of the British pastoral school with Vaughan Williams and Finzi coming to mind, with a gentle understated melancholy that speaks of a certain solemnity.
This musical reticence is buttressed via Lunn’s ‘minimalist’ vocabulary, perfectly evoking a sense of national character to Downton, a personification of quiet and dignified endurance down the ages.
Lunn’s new soundtrack allows him to revisit his central Downton themes, organically unfolding to weave a rich texture throughout the 2-hour film. ‘A New Era’ affords Lunn to indulge in full throated orchestral opulence suggestive of a Strauss or Respighi tone poem.
A much larger symphony orchestra of 80 plus players (as against the budget studio orchestras of 30 plus) gives a crucial weightiness to the film’s detour into Gallic territory. There is a vibrancy and colour here that provides for the summery warmth of South France and Mediterranean allure.
Amongst other plot threads is the film crew who descend on Downton to shoot their latest epic, only for them to dramatically upgrade the production to a ‘talkie’ mid shoot. Lunn enjoys himself a homage and pastiche of all things Nickelodeon, as plot developments take a cheeky slice of ‘Singing in the Rain’, and a highly comedic co-opting of Lady Mary onto the silver screen.
Naturally the servants aren’t to be deprived of their moment in the limelight either and are also given their breaks as extras in the shooting schedule, whilst Mr Molesley’s polymathic abilities are belatedly recognised and rewarded accordingly.
Lunn’s cues also play tribute to the British version of the jazz age and the gaiety of the pre-1929 Wall Street crash. I’m not there was quite as much levity as F. Scott Fitzgerald this side of the Atlantic, but you get the general idea.
Without giving too much away, Lunn and the film conclude on an elegiac coda which again is reminiscent of Elgar’s big tune solemnity, as the wheel of fortune takes us through each of the seasons with their highs and lows and rebirth and renewal.
My only real reservation about DA’s current trajectory is that the considerably large cast inevitably means that only so much can be done with the characters over the course of a two hour film (as opposed to the long running TV series). Aside from that regular devotees will lap it all up whilst newcomers will probably enjoy if they like the genre although it might be a tad more accessible with some previous familiarity with the series.