Synopsis – The continuing story of the Crawley family, wealthy owners of a large estate in the English countryside in the early 20th century.
My Take – As history remains bare witness, TV show adaptions and sequels have almost never translate well to the big screen. With a fact remaining how a single/multiple story-line developed over a period of a multiple episodes and season, doesn’t compartmentalized well into the limited run time of a theatrical film.
Here the film in question, is an actual follow up to Downton Abbey, a British TV series, which ran from 2011 to 2016. Airing for six reasons, the series was not just a hit, but a phenomenon. Its success seems even more astonishing when you consider: just how British the show is, it had no big American Stars and its original airing was on PBS, which isn’t known for its large audiences. But its success also demonstrates the importance of streaming and word of mouth in the overpopulated arena of television shows in the post streaming area.
So while a film version of Downton Abbey was always in the cards, the chances of it capturing the intimate magic of writer/creator Julian Fellowes’s original character driven drama series wasn’t a given.
Personally, I was never too deep into the show, and saw only a handful of episodes here and there, but given the fact that I always enjoyed British aristocratic period based drama films, I decided to give this one a shot, despite being apprehensive about not being able to follow the story if it referred to past story lines or characters I had no clue about. Thankfully, a quick recap video of the complete series, released by Focus Pictures, cleared that up.
And now having seen the film, I can assure you that any form of concern is unnecessary, as the film brings all of its charm of the series, along with a few new tricks for fans and newcomers alike to enjoy. While some might contemplate that how much you like the film will depend on whether you were a fan of the original series, I have come to surmise that, wherever your feelings may lie, you will just find it difficult to dislike the film. It’s all very polite, classy, impeccably crafted, and fairly light.
Yes, the series has come to be known as a ridiculous soap opera, and the film, directed by Michael Engler, who helmed four episodes of the series, continues that silly feel, but it is just hard to deny how it is well-shot, wonderfully acted, gorgeous to look at and most importantly, how genuinely funny it is.
Picking up approximately two years after the series’ finale, set in 1927, the story follows the Crawley family. Things are generally going well for everyone: the Crawleys remain ensconced in Downton Abbey, it seems Tom (Allen Leech) is finally a settled and respected member of the local community, and it is implied his car business with Henry (Matthew Goode) is going well. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is running Downton, and Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) is very busy and important.
Everything is fine, that is until they receive letter arrived announcing that King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) were visiting their estate as part of the royal tour around the country. This sends the Crawleys and their household staff into a tizzy of fret and preparation. Much of the planning falls upon Lady Mary who calls Carson (Jim Carter) out of retirement to oversee things because she is apprehensive that the current head of staff, Barrow (Robert James Collier) is taking the whole matter too frivolously.
Of course this irks the irksome Barrow, who was never known to be warm and fuzzy. But soon it is a moot point, because the eager, hardworking staff learn that all of them will be replaced by the royal staff from Buckingham Palace during the visit. It seems the King and Queen, have a huge entourage that travels with them, and the staff isn’t happy with being rendered useless.
Among the masters, there is also the issue of Dowager Countess of Grantham Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) and her falling out with her cousin Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), who is also coming along as the Queen’s lady-in-waiting. While Violet believes Robert should be her rightful heir, but Bagshaw seems strangely keen on her own protégé, Lucy (Tuppence Middleton). As per usual, manners are upheld, crises are averted and handled, and surprises are received at every turn including an assassination plot, as Lord and Lady Grantham (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern), the remaining members of the family, and a variety of other fan favorite figures enjoy the festivities as best as they can.
Even if though I never knew much about any of this characters, I can see why they had legions of devoted fans. These characters, both masters and servants alike, were all very personable and likable. Their personalities are so distinct, it was as if I have known them for a long time. While there’s always something important happening in this world, both the show and now the film never forgets to marry these events with the people who are living through them.
Though you don’t get a lot of time with any individual character, the different storylines are strong enough to be engaging and the film transitions from thread to thread with grace. Which is an amazing feat considering the size of the cast, including the new characters added for the plot, and the fact director Michael Engler had to compress what would usually take nine hours into two.
Interestingly enough, the downstairs staff have more of a focus in the cinematic narrative. While the Crawleys still have quite a bit to do during the preparation for their royal guests, a good portion of time is given to the clash between the staff of Downton and that of the King and Queen. This means bringing the well-respected Mr. Carson out of retirement couldn’t have happened at a better time, making his return more of a functional necessity than just a mere spectacle. While Thomas Barrow is given his own individual side plot about his being a closeted gay man.
While the melodrama is mostly gone here, the only royal progeny the film focuses is on Princess Mary (Kate Phillips), whose most noteworthy trait is an unhappy marriage to an overly stern husband. Caring about her requires fealty to the idea that all royals are inherently interesting. And if you’re a fan of the witty banter between Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess and Penelope Wilton’s Cousin Isobel, the film even amps up that battle of wits with some cuttingly funny moments between the two. That’s not to say the film devolves into too much of a comedy, but rather that this film version allows itself to have a bit more fun than usual.
With a theatrical film there’s usually a grander visual scope made possible compared to what’s achieved through a television show, and the film doesn’t forget to open itself up to the cinematic experience. From the nostalgia teasing opening, we’re given more of a look at the world outside of the estate, and are gradually drawn straight through into a beautiful passage that showcases the film’s extended resources to great lengths.
At the same time, in spite of its grand presentation and tone, the film also feels more like an extended episode of the TV series rather than an essential dedicated film. Yet, non-fans, will have an easy time of following along, as at comparatively brisk 122 minutes, the film doesn’t waste a lot of time with backstory or exposition.
The film also brings back the cast from the final season, and as always a delight to watch with Maggie Smith, who won three Emmys for her delicious portrayal, once again stealing the show. While the rest of the cast, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Brendan Coyle, Jim Carter, Kate Phillips, Geraldine James, Imelda Staunton, Allen Leech, Phyllis Logan, Simon Jones, Lesley Nicol, Penelope Wilton, Harry Hadden Paton, Sophie McShera, Laura Carmichael, David Haig, Robert James Collier, Tuppence Middleton, Joanne Froggatt, Kevin Doyle, Stephen Campbell Moore, Elizabeth McGovern, and Matthew Goode are likable. On the whole, ‘Downton Abbey’ is a deliciously entertaining affair which provides gorgeous scenery and sharp British wit to ensure a good time.
Directed – Michael Engler
Rated – PG
Run Time – 122 minutes