“Downton Abbey” Review: A Royally Good Time at the Movies

Photo by Diane Clehane

This is a test: focus on the photograph of the stately manor house at the top of this story. If you hear familiar orchestral tones of the piano when you look at it, you’re going to love the new “Downton Abbey” movie. If all you see is a mansion that bears a passing resemblance to Britain’s Houses of Parliament and wonder about what’s going on inside, you’re probably going to like it, too.

When “Downton Abbey,” the series ended its six-year run on PBS’ Masterpiece in 2016 it was at the height of its popularity and was the most-watched series in PBS’s history. The premiere episode of the final season saw 9.9 million viewers tune in – a number far out of reach for most network shows and more than double the amount of viewers the much-heralded “Mad Men” attracted for its tirelessly promoted swan song (4.6 million) the previous year. “Downton Abbey” was Sunday night ‘appointment television.’ Remember those days?

When the ITV series debuted in the UK in 2010 and a year later here in the states, the aftershocks of the global financial crisis of 2007 were still reverberating. The idea of greenlighting a show about the British upper class and their rich people problems (“Nothing is worse than losing one’s maid,” uttered one of the main characters in “Downton’s” premiere season) would not have exactly inspired the word ‘megahit’ at the time.

And yet that was exactly what “Downton Abbey” was. It was a bonafide cultural phenomenon. With its incredibly well-mannered and well-dressed lords and ladies and oddly titled servants (What exactly is an ‘under-butler’ anyway?) all living under one awe-inspiring roof navigating the cultural shifts that transformed British society in the early 20th century, “Downton Abbey” inspired grown people to dress in period costume to watch television on Sunday nights (Just check out Facebook fan pages) and make pilgrimages to Highclere Castle (the real life manor house that ‘plays’ Downton Abbey in northern England). I visited the house this summer and stood in line with hundreds of people eager to walk the same halls as the Crawley family and their servants. The day I was there, I was one of the few people touring the house who wasn’t wearing either a fascinator and white gloves or bowler hat. I kid you not.

The long-awaited film version of popular television series is a love letter to fans and an anglophile’s dream. You don’t have to have seen the series to enjoy the film, but it helps. Series creator Julian Fellowes, told me, “It’s a very, very good-looking film. We’ve always has good-looking costumes and that kind of thing. But making a movie allows us to photograph it, light it, treat it in various ways that are luxurious compared to the making of television. The people who love Downton will have a wonderful time because everything they loved about the television show will be on the big screen, but there’s more of it.”

There certainly is. Every dollar spent on the lavish production is evident in every frame. The British period drama of a seemingly more genteel time and place is in top form under the direction Michael Engler (an American!) who manages to simultaneously imbue the film with a reassuring familiarity and a sweeping sense of grandeur proving Downton worthy of the big screen treatment. It’s like one of those supersized Downton Christmas specials, only more briskly paced, glossier and more luxurious.

If the thousand or so people who turned up to attend the New York City premiere at Alice Tully Hall earlier this week are any indication, the fans’ deep and abiding affection for elegant and delightfully soapy world of Downton Abbey has only grown stronger over time.

Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes and Diane Clehane

Just why is “Downton Abbey” still so beloved by its fans nearly four years after it wrapped?

Perhaps it was because the Crawley family were nice British aristocrats who became BFFs with their maids and butlers. Lord Grantham paid for the cook’s vision-saving surgery and championed the innocence of his valet charged with murder enlisting the aid of his own lawyer to overturn a guilty verdict. In the show’s final episode, long suffering lady’s maid Anna Bates gave birth in Lady Mary’s bed and afterwards, the maid and her valet husband, John Bates, cooed over their infant son while their employers lovingly looked on.

The Crawley’s benevolence was matched by their loyal servants’ unwavering devotion to the family. Except a few interlopers, everyone at Downton had their hearts in the right place. “Mostly, everyone on the show is inherently decent,” said Fellowes. “These people are doing their best with the cards they’ve been dealt.”

“Downton Abbey” wasn’t all high tea and fancy hats. There was plenty of melodrama during its six-season run. Characters endured World War I, the Spanish flu, a scandal involving a diplomat dying in a Crawley daughter’s bed, a particularly devastating third season which featured the truly shocking deaths of two main players, a controversial rape storyline, a secret pregnancy and a murder. The series finale, which took place on New Year’s Eve 1926, Fellowes fit all the pieces together in both sensible and surprising ways with plenty of heartwarming moments, memorable dialogue and subtle commentary on class consciousness.

As everyone who has seen the ubiquitous trailers for the film knows, the film picks up in 1927 and centers of the royal visit of King George V and Queen Mary (Perfectly timed to attract fans of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle). The news throws both the upstairs and downstairs residents of “Downton Abbey” into chaos. With nearly two dozen characters, the plot is a combination of comedic caper (with an interlude of real drama) and romantic soap opera with all the series’ main characters in the mix.

Plain and simple, “Downton Abbey” is a love letter to the fans. It’s sweeping, gorgeous and unabashedly romantic. Fellowes told me his biggest challenge was coming up with a script where all the main characters “have their own story that has to be developed and resolved. Everyone has to have their crack at the whip.”

Not everyone has a lot to do, but all the main characters from the series are all woven into the story in a way that lets fans know how their lives have progressed since we last saw them. I hate reviews that give everything away, so I won’t.

The first act centers largely on the servants who are united in their disdain for the dismissive staff from Buckingham Palace when they arrive ahead of King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) and attempt to take over downstairs. Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nichol) and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) find themselves facing off against their insufferable counterparts from the royal household – and losing the battle. Unwilling to surrender to wholesale humiliation, plucky Anna (Joanne Froggatt) steps in and rallies the troops.

She even manages to get Carson (Jim Carter), who has come out of retirement to run the house during the visit at the request of Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) to go along with a far-fetched scheme designed to put the snobs in their place and fight “for the honor of Downton.” The set-up wasn’t my favorite part of the film (it goes on a tad too long) but keep your eyes on Mr. Molesley (the fabulous Kevin Doyle), who returns to service for one night to help with the royal visit. “No one is more excited at the prospect of serving the King and Queen,” Doyle told me. That’s plainly evident in one of the film’s most memorable scenes.

Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier), who is now Downton’s butler, a position he coveted throughout the series, leaves the house in protest when he finds out he’s been temporarily replaced Carson and winds up having his own eye-opening adventure. Thomas’ struggle with being a closeted gay man at a time when homosexuality was considered a crime in England led him to attempt suicide towards the end of the series. In the film, a bittersweet subplot has the complicated character crossing paths with someone who offers him hope and gives the wonderful Robert James-Collier some well-earned screen time.

As the indomitable Violet, Maggie Smith utters plenty of the dowager’s signature one-liners (seemingly at breakneck speed) and reteams with Isobel (Penelope Wilton), now Lady Merton, married to Lord Merton (Douglas Reith). As was often the case in the series, Violet is at odds with a family member who won’t bend to her will. This time it’s Imelda Staunton (who is married to Jim Carter) as Maud Bagshaw, an estranged cousin and lady-in-waiting to the Queen who tussles with Violet over an inheritance. (“I don’t argue, I explain.”) Maud arrives with her maid, Lucy Smith (the luminous Tuppence Middleton) harboring a secret that Violet and Isobel are determined to uncover.

Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) are largely in the background, but still manage to a have lovely moment “to tie a ribbon on their six-year onscreen marriage and waltz off into the sunset,” said Bonneville. Lady Mary, sporting a Louise Brooks-inspired bob, is forced to rise to the occasion and make peace with her role as the steward of Downton’s future and just as she does, her husband, Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode, who only appears at the very end of the film) rushes in to sweep her off her feet and twirl her around the dance floor at the ball which caps off the royal visit. Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), now the Marchioness of Hexham, has taken to worrying about ballgowns and is happily married (at last!) to Bertie, Lord Hexham (Harry Haden-Patton). During the royal visit, the couple gets news that will alter their future forever.

Fellowes made a very interesting and smart choice by putting Tom Branson (the terrific Allen Leech), the Irish chauffeur who became a much-loved family member, at the center of the film. Downton always employed just enough historical detail to link plotlines to real-life events. In the series, Tom’s working-class Irish roots and Republican leanings served as a primer on Irish revolutionaries of the period. In the film, Tom’s loyalties are tested in a rather dramatic fashion that will have fans of the series marveling at just how far the avowed socialist has come since he married Sybil, the youngest Crawley daughter, who died after giving birth to their daughter leaving him a widower. “He was lost in that world without her,” Leech told me.

Leech said he was “surprised and delighted” by Tom’s “really lovely storyline” in the film. I suspect fans will feel the same way. “Tom Branson is the viewer’s eye experiencing things for the first time just as the audience saw it,” said Leech of his character’s role in the series. “One of Julian’s gifts is that he created a world where he needed someone to be the tour guide. That’s Tom through his trials and tribulations and relationships in the household whether it be upstairs or downstairs.” In the final reel, it becomes obvious where Tom will wind up – and who will be at his side.

“Downton Abbey” was number one at the box office in the UK where it opened a week ago. If every stateside fan goes to see the film, it will be a smash here, too. And don’t put the tiara and tea set away just yet, if it’s a worldwide hit, this might not be the last trip back to Downton. The film may not earn Fellowes another screenwriting Oscar, but that is hardly the point. At time when our world seems more divided over class and privilege than ever before, it is inexplicably comforting to spend two hours in a darkened theater watching a movie centered around the lives of a family of aristocrats from an idealized past rather than think about our very uncertain future.

Grade: A-

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Diane Clehane

Diane Clehane is a leading authority on celebrity and royalty who has written for Vanity Fair, People, and many other national outlets. She is a New York Times best-selling author of five books, including Diana: The Secrets of Her Style and Imagining Diana. She appears regularly on CNN.

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