They say it’s a Golden Age for television, but Downton Abbey proves that the big screen still reigns supreme. The first season of Downton was one of the best seasons of television in recent memory. Its wildly entertaining portrait of a British aristocratic family and their servants was highbrow entertainment. Although the upstairs/downstairs drama of the hugely popular British soap opera jumped the shark quickly. Downton Abbey a return to form for the hit seres. This two-hour trip to Downton is a rare TV-to-film outing that merits a ticket.
Moviegoers needn’t have seen the series to appreciate the film. However, viewers in the know will relish the drama that brings out the best elements of Downton Abbey without having to pad them to fill an entire season. Let’s not forget that the creator of Downton Abbey is Julian Fellowes, who won an Oscar for writing Robert Altman’s upstairs/downstairs comedy Gosford Park. He certainly knows how to use cinematic space, a contained running time, and a sprawling cast trading expertly timed witticisms. Downton has never looked or sounded better than it does on the big screen.
Virtually every cast member from Downton’s final season returns for the film. The actors haven’t missed a beat. They wear the characters’ skins as snugly as they do their impeccably tailored costumes.
Things pick up more or less where they ended in the finale/Christmas Special of season six. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) enjoys a larger role managing the family’s estate and fretting about the sustainability of their posh lifestyle. Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) still does little besides enjoy his whisky and his status head of the household. Middle daughter Edith (Laura Carmichael) continues to struggle with married life after enjoying her independence. Downstairs, things are in good order with Thomas (Robert James-Collier) enjoying his new role as head butler following the retirement of Carson (Jim Carter). Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) still runs the household and Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) continues to whip up her magic in the kitchen.
As is always the case with a new edition of series, the film introduces some fresh characters to enliven the action. Downton Abbey receives some exciting news when the Crawleys learn that King George V (Simon James) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) plan to visit during their Royal tour of the countryside. The impending Royal visit sends the servants into a tizzy. They feverishly plan to get the house shipshape. The Royal visit draws out the class system that made the early seasons of Downton Abbey so captivating. Despite the gaps in social status, the servants internalize their standing just as strongly as the Crawleys do. They feel deeply honoured to serve the King and Queen. From the cook to the footman, they become minor celebrities in town for their patriotic duties.
Fellowes’ doesn’t disappoint either with the soap opera elements that make Downton such a guilty pleasure. The visit brings a royal rumble between the servants of Downton and the servants of the King and Queen. This plot humorously accentuates the hierarchies of class that exist even among the servants.
Downton is, as always, preoccupied with the ways of love. Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen aid, Daisy (Sophie McShera), still drags out her will-they-or-won’t-they romance with Andy the footman (Michael Fox). The film doubles down with the visit of a smoking hot plumber who offers to attend to Daisy’s pipes. Even a lengthy review can’t list all the plot points of this two-hour whirlwind. It goes without saying that the film offers the most Downton for one’s dollar that money can buy.
The Royals also bring a worthy adversary for the party upstairs. The Queen’s maid, Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), is the cousin of Lord Grantham’s mother, Violet (Maggie Smith), long estranged from the family after she and the Dowager Countess were at odds over the family inheritance. Smith and Staunton make delightful foes. They trade barbs just as well as Smith does with the Dowager’s long-running rival on the series, Isobel (Penelope Wilton). These scenes again provide Downton Abbey with its signature wit.
Downton fans will be happy to know that Smith still drops zingers like a mo-fo. The Dowager reigns supreme as the standout in the excellent ensemble thanks to Smith’s acerbic timing. Smith’s deadpan funny, but nuanced take on “old money” is the kind of performance that merits serious awards consideration. But voters might take this turn for granted having seen it perfected across six seasons of television. (Three Emmy wins for Smith aren’t too shabby, though.)
The freedom of a film canvas also lets Downton Abbey confront some detractors of the series. For example, the Royal visit makes Downton a bit more political. The Crawleys’ Irish son-in-law/former chauffeur Tom Branson (Allen Leech) must wrestle with his Republican/anti-Monarchy views while upholding the family honour. Thomas also gets to explore his sexuality a bit more overtly than the show allowed. Again, a bit more political.
It is still Downton Abbey, though. Fellowes’ script engages with these themes more substantially than the series ever did, the film continues the show’s conservatism. Everything upholds the status quo. Downton reaffirms the Monarchy and the British way of life while critiquing it ever so slightly and resolving things cleanly. A baby step for the Crawleys is still a big step. The leap from the small screen to the big one, however, is ever so giant.
Downton Abbey opens in theatres Sept. 20.