Drama, rated PG, 122 minutes; Regal Santa Fe 6, Regal Stadium 14, and Violet Crown; 3.5 chiles
America has grown enamored of action-packed cable television programs such as Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, making the massive stateside success of the buttoned-up and distinctly British series Downton Abbey something of an anomaly. Set in the 1920s in the Yorkshire estate of Downton Abbey, the show (which aired on PBS from 2010-2015) centered on the esteemed Crawley family and their scores of domestic servants, as they all experience love and loss and attempt to keep the massive estate afloat and shipshape in a rapidly modernizing 20th-century England.
As every fan knows by now, Downton Abbey the movie has arrived in cinemas as a feature-length coda to the series.
The show’s genius rests with creator and writer Julian Fellowes, who weaves multiple storylines and themes across upstairs and down, showing that the two sides experience change, and particularly the clash between tradition and progress, in similar ways. Both sides jockey for social standing within their spheres, are suspicious of newcomers in their midst, and (depending on a given character’s age, gender, and sexual orientation) are either apprehensive or welcoming of social advancement.
These themes serve as a rich canvas for an extraordinary ensemble cast, who, along with the steadyhand of Fellowes, almost entirely return for the film, including Hugh Bonneville (Robert), Elizabeth McGovern (Cora), and Allen Leech (Tom). (Lily James’ Lady Rose and Samantha Bond’s Lady Rosamund are notable absences.) They are each given full arsenals of one-liners and barbs that they wield against each other to delicious effect — no character more so than Maggie Smith’s matriarchal Violet, who steals every scene she’s in. Despite this bickering, however, the characters are warmly acted and generally have deep appreciation for one another. That affection is so contagious that it carries over to the audience, and likely created the demand for this movie.
The film finds these characters in 1927, with the events of the series finale receding into the past. The quotidian life on the estate continues as usual, until the family receives a letter informing them that King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) are stopping in for an overnight visit on their travels. This rare visit from royalty has everyone in a tizzy, although the downstairs staff — including below-stairs mainstays Thomas (Robert James-Collier), Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), and Mr. Carson ( Jim Carter) — is affected more profoundly than the family upstairs, since they are the ones who must cook, clean, and contend with the royal family’s traveling staff.
That is the extent of the central plot, and the film is well-served by its simplicity. The television show occasionally got bogged down with soap opera-like subplots padded out to last a full season, and the need to land each episode on a cliffhanger. Free from those constraints, Fellowes is allowed to not fuss with plot machinations and devote himself to sprinkling a straightforward story with small moments that are delightful and feel true to the characters. There are no murder trials or war dramas, no marriages or funerals, and the fate of the Downton estate is never in doubt. Indeed, it is possible to enjoy the movie without having seen a single episode of the show.
If it’s not the most cinematic movie from a visual perspective, it’s because there isn’t much to improve upon from the show, which was created for the widescreen, high-definition TV era and already expertly portrayed the opulence of the upstairs and the bustle of the downstairs with sterling detail. There are a few more sweeping overhead shots, but director Michael Engler — who also helmed four episodes of the series — knew his job was simply to carry over the visual language of the show and to stay out the characters’ paths. Between his work and that of Fellowes, the story is spread democratically across the cast, and each character is remarkably given just enough time to feel involved, and nobody crowds anyone else out.
Unlike the HBO series Deadwood, which recently gave fans a movie in part to tie up loose ends left by the series’ abrupt cancelation, Downton Abbey’s run wrapped up with an emotional, satisfying conclusion. The movie serves merely as an encore, bringing each character out for a curtain call and letting them each enjoy a small moment or two that will surely warm the hearts of everyone who spent five years getting to know them. The film modestly aims for nothing more than to please longtime fans, and it succeeds marvelously.