In a year that’s already blessed us with two excellent feature film cap offs to critically beloved and long-departed television series (read our reviews for Deadwood: The Movie and El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie), a very different but no less acclaimed show joins the TV to cinema foray in Downton Abbey. Through six seasons and 52 episodes, the cosy British period drama about early 20th century life (1914 – 1926) in a grand Yorkshire manor became a surprise phenomenon – earning numerous Emmy awards, universal praise, and legions of fans.
So when news that series creator Julian Fellowes would be revisiting the Crawleys and their staff for the big screen, the Downton Abbey movie became an Avengers-level event for Anglophiles. Does the film hold any appeal for non-fans? Unlikely. But for devotees who’ve seen these characters grow and change, this reunion is the most joyous of occasions. From the second it’s stirring theme song tinkles in and a glorious drone shot welcomes us back to the country estate, long-time viewers will be instantly sucked back into the series’ lavish charms.
From production to costuming, Downton Abbey doesn’t just retain the magisterial look and feel of the show – it all seems grander thanks the film’s bigger budget. It’s a comforting return to form – like a shinier, more magnificent instalment of the series’ extra-long Christmas specials. Picking up in 1927 (a year after the series finale), we find the household in a dither over the news that the King and Queen of England would be staying at Downton during their tour. “A royal visit is like a swan on a lake,” a footman observes. “Beauty and grace above, demented kicking below.”
The impending arrival of The Majesties kick off familiar problems for the myriad of characters upstairs and downstairs. Nothing that happens is terribly surprising, but the way it plays out is thoroughly entertaining and immensely satisfying. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is still worried about the sustainability of Downton amidst the eroding aristocracy, Tom Branson (Allen Leech) still struggles to reconcile his loyalty to the family with his Irish republican politics, and the irrepressible Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) is still wittily scheming against a family rival.
Meanwhile, the staff downstairs is overwhelmed with the preparations, even as anti-monarchist sentiment and cute romantic complications bubble as subplots. Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) returns to take charge, Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle) are still the heart and soul of the cast, Daisy (Sophie McShera) and Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) never miss a beat with their patter, Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) is beginning to explore his closeted homesexuality, and bumbling Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) remains exceptional comic relief.
While the intrigue upstairs (ranging from an assisination attempt to a stolen inheritance) involves far higher stakes, it’s the story downstairs that proves most delightful. A crisis emerges when the beyond-snooty Buckingham Palace staff show up and tell our hard-working regulars to step aside and let the professionals take over – a humiliation if ever there was one. That’s when the Downton staff stage an Ocean’s Eleven-esque plan to take back control of their duties. The visiting servants are easy to root against, and it gives our plucky underdogs their time to shine.
If this all sounds like it’s a bit much, that’s because it is. Fellowes attempts to service over 20 returning characters and the result feels like there’s a season’s worth of plot crammed into two hours. Yet despite being overstuffed, Downton Abbey flows thanks to some incredibly funny sequences, and a few genuinely heartwarming scenes that recall the series at its peak. Mostly though, the triumph of this movie is its ability to recapture the Downton we know and love, and seeing so many familiar faces and dynamics (even fleetingly) feels like visiting old friends.
Ultimately, the Downton Abbey movie succeeds by doing exactly what the series did. It’s a wish-fulfillment period fantasy that exists in it’s own romantic universe – one where the dialogue is always sharp, the costumes are to-die-for, and where human decency and empathy can unite the classes. It excels with cutting wit, soapy drama, and genteel commentary about utility, rank, and changing social mores. Odds are, if you’re seeing this film, it’s because you already want to go back to Downton Abbey, and if that’s the case, then you’re definitely in for a treat.