When creator Julian Fellowes began his ITV/PBS TV series “Downton Abbey” in 2010, it offered warm and cosy counter-programming to the edgier, antihero-laden shows of the time like “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” and “Boardwalk Empire.” Although the show’s notorious third season required quite the bloodbath to deal with cast departures and a subsequent rape storyline garnered well-deserved condemnation, by the end of its run, the show was able to swing back to what Fellowes does best: cutting wit, mildly soapy drama, and genteel social commentary.
Universal Pictures and Focus Features’ big screen continuation — picking up less than five years after the show ended in 2015 — doesn’t miss a beat when it comes to maintaining the look and feel of that lavish fairy tale. It’s a return to form, and its all-encompassing storyline plays much like a shinier, more magnificent Christmas special.
As the doors of the Yorkshire country estate open once again in 1927, its residents are in a dither both upstairs and down over the news that the King and Queen of England would be staying one night at Downton during their tour. Bringing in the royal couple almost guarantees that this will be the series’ last hurrah because how can one top Their Majesties? It’s also a clever device to match the grander storytelling stakes that the move to the big screen requires, not to mention putting the plight of the rapidly vanishing aristocracy into sharp relief.
At 115 minutes, director Michael Engler keeps the energy high throughout, even though the first act is mainly setup. That’s by design since Fellowes knows the brand’s strength and its audience’s desires; the main appeal of “Downton Abbey” is living in that era, drinking up every little detail, and spending time with old friends. Plot is a garnish. Fortunately, most of the gang has returned, ranging from Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith, and Michelle Dockery upstairs, to Jim Carter, Phyllis Logan, and Sophie McShera downstairs. New guest stars include David Haig, Tuppence Middleton, and Imelda Staunton.
With more than 20 characters to service, the film gives the choicer B plots to the fan-favorite characters. That means Maggie Smith gets to trot out lines like, “Machiavelli is frequently underrated. He had many qualities,” in Violet’s pursuit of familial justice, while a posh and bobbed Lady Mary (Dockery) takes control of the estate and preparations for the visit. Meanwhile, former chauffeur Tom Branson (Allen Leech) and his loyalties to the family are tested as his Irish Republican leanings come face to face with the monarchy. Edith (Laura Carmichael) as Lady Hexham is relatively happy (Thank God!) this time around, which is a relief after her treatment throughout the series.
But the real meat of the story belongs to the servants who are initially elated by the chance to serve the King and Queen, but then are horrified to learn that the royal contingent has its own staff that will take over instead. Of course, that will simply not do for this type of wish fulfillment tale, and therefore the staff belowstairs becomes embroiled in schemes that are part “Ocean’s Eleven” and part Plucky Underdogs Who Put on a Show in order to have their moment in the Yorkshire sun.
As always, “Downton” poses the question of utility and rank, how a person at every level of society must redefine themselves in the changing world. But in the case of Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier), the struggle is far more personal. As the only homosexual character on “Downton Abbey,” he’s had his share of trials in an era when being gay is considered a crime. His examination of the closeted homosexual life is kept light in the movie, although the persecution and bigotry he faces is still horrifying in its casualness. But at least the “Downton” fairy tale remains intact, albeit bittersweet, as the trailer hints at a romance for Barrow that can’t be easy to pursue. The movie squeezes in a few more amorous threads throughout, but nothing achieving the heights of the Mary and Matthew or Anna and Bates days.
The tinkling bars of the signature theme song, the first glimpse of the crenellated battlements, the stunning gowns, the lavish decorations – they’re all of a piece. “Downton Abbey” the movie makes a strong argument against change, of holding onto the past. With less time to develop in-depth stories for its players, the bits and bobs that everyone gets combine much like an impressionistic painting to create an aesthetically pleasing whole. It’s a quaint throwback – not because it’s a period drama – but because it rewinds the clock to the feeling audiences had in 2010.
Was the return to the Crawleys and their staff worth it? Yes, because the movie is a elaborately wrought labor of love that is everything that “Downton” fans could want — short of another season — and every penny can be seen onscreen. But more importantly it offers a happily ever after of sorts regarding the country estate’s fate. Without getting too gruesome, the movie offers the perfect way to close the doors on beloved characters before the actors age out of the roles or die off.
Much like Camelot or “Sleeping Beauty,” “Downton Abbey” exists in its own romantic mythical bubble that’s shaded with enough historical detail to tether it to reality. And now it’s been frozen in the amber of celluloid, with the Crawleys and their friends in their perpetual state of joy and anticipation for a new age to come.
Universal Pictures and Focus Features will release “Downton Abbey” in theaters on Friday, September. 20.