by Alan Yudman
A bell chimes, the music swells and eventually a drone camera flies over the familiar manor. It’s at that point less than 5 minutes into the movie that I knew I was going to adore DOWNTON ABBEY.
This is an entire movie of fan service. Nearly every character from the show’s 6 seasons who didn’t die in a war, from eclampsia or in a car wreck returns just as you remember them. The Dowager Countess and Isobel, Robert and Cora, Ladies Mary and Edith, Tom Branson, the downstairs staff… are all back though some have more to do than others. No Lily James as Lady Rose (guess she couldn’t make it back from America. That’s what happened, right?)
The story revolves around a visit from King George V and Queen Mary. That is the through line upon which other plots are hung. The preparations, the visit itself and a ball at Princess Mary’s castle nearby are just background for everything else. As a result, there is no real story arc other than pulling off the Royal visit. But that’s ok. Because all anyone wants to see is our favorite characters doing that with which we are familiar. Tom Branson has more nobility than any nobleman. Lady Mary has a killer bob and worries about the future of Downton. Lady Edith pushes away from tradition and yearns for a more modern existence. And most joyously, Violet trades quips with Cousin Isobel. I was there for all of it.
The downstairs staff has to deal with the truly horrible members of the Royal household. The King’s Page of the Backstairs, the head housekeeper and an assistant seamstress are simply awful. They dismiss the staff as incapable of serving the King and Queen and the Crawley family as insignificant leaders of a minor house. That unites the staff (lead by Mr. and Mrs. Bates and over the objections of Carson) in hatching a scheme to take back their house and their dignity. Mr. Carson returns to take over Butler duties for a seemingly overwhelmed Barrow. Barrow, feeling shoved aside, takes up with an assistant royal valet. Daisy remains a revolutionary who wants to grow beyond her role as assistant cook.
I know. That’s a lot. And I am barely scratching the surface. The whole movie feels like it could have been another couple of episodes to open a seventh season that never came. That’s smart if you just want to please fans. And DOWNTON ABBEY is all about pleasing fans. Julian Fellowes keeps it simple. He stays faithful to each character and doesn’t invent some elaborate story that would have felt out of place. So, if you were expecting some grand political statements that portend a future that includes Brexit and the irrelevancy of the Royal Family, well you don’t know Downton.
You may be asking, why make a movie and not just another short season? Only Lord Fellowes (yes, he’s a member of Parliament) can answer that, but here’s a few guesses. They couldn’t get the cast to commit to another full season. The show started feeling tired toward the end. I still loved it, but it was starting to crumble around the edges like an ignored estate. A new platform means the opportunity to make piles of money. While all that may be true, here’s my number one reason. This all just felt grander on the big screen. The cinematography was spectacular. Downton never looked better or more regal than it does here. High sweeping drone shots of Highclere Castle set against the English countryside are enough to make an Anglophile swoon. The music is bigger. The familiar theme from the TV show was played mostly on a piano. Here employing a full orchestra makes John Lunn’s score feel immense and powerful. Fellowes’ screenplay is perfectly familiar.
Maybe there are too many subplots… I lost track at about the “F” plot… but it is far from annoying and I loved nearly every minute. One quibble is with the plot that sees Barrow going to an underground gay club in York and being arrested. In case you forgot, being gay in the United Kingdom was a crime well into the 1970’s. It sort of worked until nearly the end of that thread which felt a little preachy and eye-rolly.
DOWNTON ABBEY is far from a perfect movie. I doubt it will win any awards. But it felt like lighting a fire in the drawing room and curling up with a familiar book while your family is gathered around you. It’s comfort food. And we could all use a little comfort food these days.