I remain amazed that Downton Abbey became such a massive hit at a time when income inequality became a major issue. Perhaps it’s because Downton Abbey is, and has always been, a comforting fairy tale of a benevolent aristocracy that cares about the lives of their servants and the servants who are happy to serve the aristocracy. In place of nuance and critique, creator and writer Julian Fellowes approached his characters and story with slight melodrama and a large dose of kindness. Downton Abbey succeeds because it’s largely about good people trying to help each other within the confines of a social system that seems to work well enough for all involved (a far more cutting critique of the intersection between the “upstairs” and “downstairs” was explored in the masterful Gosford Park, which Fellowes also wrote). Now, four years after wrapping its sixth and final season, Downton Abbey returns as a motion picture that’s just as charming as its small-screen iteration. While the film has a bit of a tough time servicing its large ensemble, Fellowes plays to the strengths of his world and cast while director Michael Engler takes advantage of the higher production values afforded him. Fans of the series should feel right at home, and newcomers will probably be spurred to finally check out the series.
Picking up in 1927, two years after the events of the series concluded, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) receives the news that the King and Queen of England are coming to visit Downton during their tour of the country. Although everyone is initially excited at the prospect, the royal staff presumes to relegate the Downton staff to doing next to nothing, much to their consternation. Meanwhile, a controversy is brewing upstairs with the return of Lord Grantham’s estranged cousin Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), who is threatening to give her inheritance to her servant, which upsets her aunt Lady Violet (Maggie Smith). Additionally, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is worried that her brother-in-law Tom (Allen Leech) will revert to his anti-imperialist ways when faced with the King and Queen.
These are some of the biggest storylines in the movie, and if they don’t seem like much, you’re right. Fellowes has opted not to blow up Downton Abbey but instead simply broaden its scope a bit. The kind of melodrama the show could really sink its teeth into like an illicit affair or a secret pregnancy doesn’t work within the confines of a two-hour movie, so instead Fellowes opts for a kind of cursory overview of what we enjoy about the series. There’s sweeping views of the English countryside, loving panoramas of Highclere Castle (which continues to serve as the filming location), Violet and Isobel (Penelope Wilton) trading zingers, fancy costumes, and people being nice to each other.
The downside to this cursory approach is that no story or character feels like it’s getting enough attention. For example, Mary’s “arc” in the film is whether or not she can continue to run Downton. It’s an arc that consists of two scenes—one where Mary wonders about if she can run Downton, and a second scene where she resolves to run Downton. And that’s more than some characters get with Lord Grantham and Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) relegated to background players. Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna (Joanne Froggart), who spend the series having the world’s worst luck, have almost nothing to do, which I suppose is a nice change of pace from being constantly implicated in murders (although I kept waiting for Sergeant Willis to show up to ask a few more questions).
And yet Engler and Fellowes keep the film feeling light, airy, and cozy. It’s not the series and it’s not really intended to be. Instead, Downton Abbey is more of a way to reconnect with characters you love in a setting you enjoy. No one here is interested in challenging the premise of the series or why it worked so well. Instead, they choose to lean into those pleasantries in the time they’ve allotted, and thanks to Engler’s skilled direction and Ben Smithard’s lush cinematography, the movie feels like a movie rather than a two-hour episode they shoved into theaters. Downton Abbey was always a handsome show, but like the fancy silver being polished for the royal family’s arrival, the movie provides an extra buffing to make everything sparkle.
Downton Abbey is perfectly pleasant for what it is—a chance to reconnect with some favorite characters in a world benefitting from slightly higher production values. Although part of me wonders what would this movie would like if Fellowes turned the story inward rather than having the characters face a bunch of external forces (for example, what does this movie look like if it’s about everyone dealing with the death of Lord Grantham instead of squaring off against Buckingham Palace’s servants), perhaps such a dramatic turn would be against the comforting ethos of the show. Downton Abbey was always able to handle its dramatic turns with a light touch, and the movie is no different. For fans like myself, it makes for an immensely satisfying reunion with the Crawley family and their staff.