I've said this before but it bears repeating: from horror, I want gore, disturbing murders and senseless torture. From comedy I want laughs generated via Woody Allen or Pootie Tang. From action I want car chasing, shooting and explosioning. From martial arts I want your best-quality, most #1 kung fu battling. From Bela Tarr I want long slow 10-minute takes of cattle wandering around in black-and-white fields of anguish. All of these genre requests are reasonable.
And from anglophilic exercises in luxurious trouble, understated banter and subtle class warfare I want gorgeous estates, impeccable period detail, crisply uptight fancy people and shocked expressions of disapproval. Those details are the genre's equivalent to the flying kick to the face. Sting enough of them together and I'll be happy. If Downton Abbey can sweeten the deal by sparing Maggie Smith or Elizabeth McGovern for a minute, farming them out for a side project, then AWESOME.
Well, no Maggie Smith here. But you get some Elizabeth McGovern, changing it up a bit, shifting gears from her duties as DA's maternal American heiress to this story's brittle, English ball of nerves. As mother to Dolly (Like Crazy's Felicity Jones), McGovern hovers and rictus-grins over her soon-to-be-unhappily-married eldest daughter as the girl's summer romance (Attack the Block's Luke Treadaway) does some hovering of his own, behaving like a petulant also-ran. Tolstoy-ish character names like Dolly and Kitty and the referential use of the Russian author's novel Family Happiness are all you need to know about how much happiness to expect from the story. That cheerful weather is -- spoiler coming -- freezing December English rain.
As a minor-key entry into this genre, it's for fans of afternoon tea only, the kind of film you can easily watch again, later, because you forgot all about ever having seen it the first time. Yet there's still plenty to make you glad you sat down to enjoy the stiff upper misery. As the sardonic best friend, Zoe Tapper gets to stand on the sidelines making smirky comments about the silliness of the proceedings, while bitter-marrieds Mackenzie Crook (The Office) and Fenella Woolgar (Bright Young Things) discreetly steal every bit of scenery possible, seething and fuming and not-so-secretly loving the desperate unhappiness of everyone around them. Their contributions make for more effective moments than satisfying whole, it's all somewhat less than the most powerful kung fu, but it'll do for now until season three of Downton hits PBS. Free Bates!