Film Review: ‘Downton Abbey’ Invites You to Visit Old Friends

The popular British television series aspires to new heights as it moves to the big screen.

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It’s been four years since the Crawleys and their staff said good bye, but their stories now move to the big screen in “Downton Abbey.”

Popularized for American audiences by Masterpiece Theater, the British period drama spent six seasons on television sharing the lives of Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), the Earl of Gratham, his American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), and their three daughters. And while the fabulous lives of the lords and ladies unfolded upstairs, we also got acquainted with the world below. The cooks and maids and footmen and butler downstairs experienced a much different, but no less significant, world.

Picking up a year or two after the series ended, “Downton Abbey” opens with the announcement that the King and Queen are planning to visit the region and will be staying at Downton. It is 1927 and King George V and Queen Mary are the current occupants of Buckingham Palace. News of a royal visit sets Yorkshire hearts aflutter, but means massive preparations for the Crawleys and their household. As it would in any season of the show, some are thrown into a panic while others shrug at the archaic ritual associated with two essentially powerless figureheads.

Downton Abbey staff
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(L to R) Phyllis Logan stars as Mrs. Hughes, Jim Carter as Mr. Carson, Kevin Doyle as Mr. Molesley, Raquel Cassidy as Miss Baxter, Joanne Froggatt as Anna Bates, Brendan Coyle as Mr. Bates, Sophie McShera as Daisy, Lesley Nicol as Mrs. Patmore, Robert James-Collier as Thomas Barrow and Michael C. Fox as Andy in DOWNTON ABBEY, a Focus Features release.
Credit : Jaap Buitendijk / © 2019 Focus Features, LLC

As a television series, “Downton Abbey” took its time letting plots unfold, stirring up melodrama and intrigue over hours and weeks. Each season went into its finale with seemingly insurmountable challenges, only for things to finally work out in satisfying ways. As a film, “Downton Abbey” has much less time to develop its grand plans. It plays like eight hours of television compressed into two. And yet, it’s such a delightful place to be that it’s difficult to mind the quick visit.

All of our favorites return. We get the chance to catch up with the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) and her friendly nemesis, Lady Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton). They trade their barbs and work together to corner the Queen’s lady in waiting, Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton). Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) have settled into their happy marriages, even though both husbands are frequently off tending to important business. And Tom (Allen Leech) continues to be the county’s sweetest and most eligible widower.

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(l-r) Laura Carmichael stars as Lady Edith, Imelda Staunton as Maud Bagshaw and Dame Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley in DOWNTON ABBEY, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Liam Daniel / © 2019 Focus Features, LLC

Below stairs, Mr. Barrow (Robert James-Collier) enjoys his position as butler. But the royal visit paralyzes him enough to send Mary calling Carson (Jim Carter) temporarily out of retirement. Daisy (Sophie McShera) avoids discussing wedding plans with fiance Andy (Michael Fox), and Mr. and Mrs. Bates (Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt) are happy parents to a little boy.

With so many focal characters, it’s difficult to make time to catch up with them all. But the script by former showrunner Julian Fellowes gives space to connect with all the favorites. And the script is tied together beautifully by director Michael Engler. It would be easy for such a large cast to overwhelm the story as everyone jockeys for the spotlight. But that isn’t the case here. There’s room for everyone to have at least a bit of time to remind us who they are and why we care about them. That could only be accomplished by someone who knows these characters well and cares about them as much as the audience does.

If ever there was a film made in service to its fans, it is “Downton Abbey.” The show dealt with serious topics from death and grief to sexual assault. There were murders and financial crises and world wars. There was also love and laughter and joy. The film doesn’t spend a lot of time on the negative. The most pressing and significant issues addressed are whether it is time to downsize their castle for a nice manor, and how the staff will handle being pushed aside for the royal family’s own traveling servants. There are other issues too, certainly, including a political subplot that accomplishes little more than giving a little more screen time to a character we love. But none of that really matters. Because in a world starving for kindness this is a film prepared to serve it up on a platter.

“Downton Abbey” might not win over a lot of new viewers that missed six seasons on PBS, but it will certainly give its faithful devotees reasons to go back and pay it another visit.

“Downton Abbey” is distributed by Focus Features and is in theaters now.

GRADE: (★★★½)

 

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