Review: “Downton Abbey”

3.5 out of 5 stars.

There’s always something comforting about returning to something familiar.  Such is the case with “Downton Abbey,” the film based on the British television series of the same name.  Broadcast in the U.S. as part of Masterpiece Theatre, series creator Julian Fellowes launched “Downton Abbey” in 2010.  The show, which follows the Crawley family and their servants on their Yorkshire estate at the beginning of the twentieth century, endured for six seasons, was critically acclaimed, and fast became the most popular series on ITV and PBS. 

It’s interesting, however, to see “Downton Abbey” make the transition from series to feature film.  And not just a television film (several of the series’ special episodes were in fact film length), but a movie released in the theaters.  The “Downton Abbey” movie is both a one-off story and a continuation of the series, so those who have never watched the show will likely be lost when it comes to Downton’s many characters.  But it’s obvious from the get-go that this movie was made explicitly with the existing fans in mind, with the added bonus of being able to be a bit bigger and more cinematic—while still mostly being made up of the sort of soap opera antics that are familiar to the series.

Former butler Carson (Jim Carter) returns to Downton for the King and Queen’s visit

The film opens in 1927.  The age of aristocracy is fading away, but Downton Abbey is still clinging to its old way of life.  Lord Grantham, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) receives a letter from Buckingham Palace that the King and Queen will be visiting for one evening on their tour of Yorkshire, and the household is thrown into an uproar preparing for their arrival, from Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) to Downton’s butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier).  The arrival of the royal servants throws the downstairs inhabitants into chaos, while upstairs, the Crawley’s deal with everything from Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton, a new face to the series), a cousin who is apparently going to deny Robert her inheritance, to an assassination attempt.

Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) arrives at Downton with her husband Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton)

All of the principal cast, with the exception of a couple faces here and there, return for this film, and director Michael Engler, who also helmed several episodes of the series, makes sure each character (of which there are many) has their time in the spotlight.  Among those are Tom Branson (Allen Leech), whose Irish heritage causes some concern as the household prepares for the King and Queen’s visit, and the amusingly savage banter between Maggie Smith’s Violet and Penelope Wilton’s Isobel.  Lady Mary worries over whether they should give up Downton or continue with their current lifestyle, while her sister Edith (Laura Carmichael) has some new worries of her own.  John and Anna Bates (Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt) are as loveable as ever, while cooks Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nichol) and Daisy (Sophie McShera) fight to retake their kitchen from the pompous royal chef.  Mary invites former butler Carson (Jim Carter) back to help from the visit after she feels like Barrow is falling short of expectations, and while both are wonderful, it’s the ever-intriguing Barrow who gets one of the film’s more interesting subplots.  His homosexuality has been present since season one, episode one, but the movie ponders on it more here, as Barrow wonders to the visiting royal dresser (Max Brown) whether they will ever be accepted by society in the decades to come.

Daisy (Sophie McShera) and Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nichol)

But that is one of the few modern takes this film has.  “Downton Abbey” makes an interesting argument against change.  Anna tells Mary that they need to stay because “Downton Abbey is the heart of this community.”  In a rapidly changing and increasingly modern word, the household is a beacon of hope and comfort, a symbol of a more lavish and simultaneously simpler way of life.  That same idea can be transferred to the audiences venturing out to watch “Downton Abbey” in the theater.  There’s something immediately comforting about seeing characters we’ve come to know and love existing exactly how we left them, as though nothing has changed.

Sure, “Downton Abbey” never really elevates itself to the point where it feels like we aren’t just watching a two hour episode of the show.  There is an over-abundance of pretentious, sweeping landscape shots, with Highclere Castle (the real-life estate where the show and movie were filmed) being filmed from every possible angle at every time of day, while the soap opera-level drama often feels too trivial for the big screen.  But we live in uncertain times, with many other contemporary films reflecting that.  “Downton Abbey” presents an escape, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Runtime: 122 minutes. Rated PG.

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