Julian Fellowes, the creator behind the hit British television series Downton Abbey, is a conservative House of Lords member in the United Kingdom Parliament. It’s no surprise, then, that throughout the show, and in the Downton Abbey movie that comes three years after the show ended, most of the characters’ sympathies lean toward the aristocracy and traditionalist values.
One character symbolizes this more than any other. Tom Branson, the Irishman who began the series as an idealistic socialist and proponent of Irish independence, is the chauffeur at Downton Abbey in the show’s first season. Throughout the course of the series, which is set in the 1910s and ‘20s, he marries into the aristocratic family who own the Downton Abbey estate, the Crawleys, and he eventually takes a position in helping to manage it.
Tom gives a speech in the movie – it echoes a sentiment he expressed more than once in the series – about how living in both worlds, as servant and aristocrat, has tempered his revolutionary views and made him appreciate and come to love members of a class he once considered his sworn enemy. It’s a way of thinking that seems increasingly foreign in our current political climate. It also serves to uphold the established social hierarchy, which seems to be Fellowes’s ultimate goal.
That’s not to say he doesn’t turn a critical eye in the other direction on occasion. The Crawley family hold old-fashioned views that are held up for ridicule; none more than Robert Crawley, the patriarch of the family and the seventh Earl of Grantham.
Downton Abbey even features a gay character, butler Thomas Barrow, and the movie gives him a heartfelt and touching arc that emphasizes the cruelty with which society at that time treated what it considered a perverted lifestyle. Fellowes clearly has a progressive streak that he likes to indulge – he isn’t a member of the American Republican party, after all. His show often focuses on the “downstairs” characters as much as the “upstairs” ones.
The Downton Abbey movie takes place in 1927, and for the most part, it’s a direct continuation of the series. It plays like the Christmas specials of the show, which functioned as the last episode of each season. Those episodes were usually about 90 minutes in length and featured a grand event – like a trip to a different estate for a grouse hunt – around which all the melodrama revolved.
The movie features the grandest possible event for the grandest iteration (a cinematic release) of the story. Downton Abbey has been selected for a royal visit. The King and Queen of England are touring the country as a show of the importance of the monarchy – Fellowes based this on a similar tour that took place in 1912 – which will culminate in a royal ball at a nearby estate.
The flurry of excitement and agita in preparing for the impending visit that is felt by both the Crawley family and their servants offer plenty of entertainment for any fan of the show. Whenever a popular television series makes the leap to a theatrical film release, the question critics love to ask is if people who didn’t watch the show can enjoy it. There have been some rumblings that Downton Abbey offers too much fan service to be satisfying.
Frankly, I think that’s hogwash. For one thing, the movie should strive for quite a bit of fan service. This is a movie made primarily for fans of the show, is it not? How many people are going to walk into this movie cold, having never seen an episode of Downton Abbey? I would guess not many.
And if that does happen, there is plenty here to satisfy them. A brand-new story line, involving a distant second cousin of Robert Crawley, is introduced and concluded in Downton Abbey. The cousin, Lady Maud Bagshaw, the Queen’s lady-in-waiting, has no heir apparent to her estate. Robert’s mother, Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (played, as in the show, with delicious superiority by Dame Maggie Smith) is determined that her son should be proclaimed Lady Bagshaw’s rightful heir.
For the uninitiated viewer, there is also plenty of fun to be had with the schemes the Downton servants perpetrate when they learn they will not be serving Their Majesties. Retired head butler of Downton, Mr. Carson, who is brought back for the royal visit because of his expertise; housekeeper Mrs. Hughes; and most of the footmen and kitchen staff are all incensed when they learn that King George and Queen Mary’s personal staff will be taking over all duties for the visit. The plan they enact to subvert these usurpers borders on farce, in the best possible way.
Fellowes succeeds in his screenplay with most of these entertaining plot strands. There are a few, however, that don’t quite work. A storyline involving a love interest that turns up for the aforementioned Tom Branson, Lady Bagshaw’s maid Lucy, feels too rushed to be believable. Their arc is something that would have been developed over the course of an entire season of the Downton Abbey show. In the movie, it has to happen at lightening quick speed, which makes it ultimately unsatisfying.
There is also a subplot involving assistant cook Daisy and her betrothed, footman Andy Parker, that doesn’t go much of anywhere and feels superfluous. Meanwhile, a man going by the title Major Chetwode shows up in advance of the royal visit to ensure Tom Branson, because of his past, doesn’t aim to cause trouble in front of the King and Queen. This leads to a sequence that turns Downton Abbey into an action movie for about three minutes, that, while exciting, seems out of place.
A standout strength of the film is the cinematic feel that American television director Michael Engler brings to Fellowes’ story. The television series had a very cinematic look in its own right, but Engler – who directed four episodes of Downton Abbey and has numerous other TV shows on his résumé – raises the stakes for the movie. The opening shots are a gorgeous collection of expansive aerials as we follow a postal train that is carrying the announcement of the royal visit to the Downton estate. Once we get to the Abbey, Engler employs a virtuoso tracking shot that is thrilling to watch. Cinematographer Ben Smithard gives the movie a sumptuous, regal look.
This is a movie for the fans, make no mistake. There will be character idiosyncrasies and past events that will be lost on newcomers to Downton Abbey. But on the whole, Julian Fellowes strikes a balance between making the translation of his series to the big screen enjoyable for novices and superfans alike.
Why it got 3.5 stars:
- It’s a delight catching up with all the Downton Abbey characters, both “upstairs” and “downstairs.” Fellowes’s screenplay and Engler’s direction also make it enjoyable enough that newbies can get something out of it, too. The movie retains what made the show work: characters in whom it’s easy to become invested and a marvelously recreated early 20th century setting.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I think I made it pretty clear in the review that I am a fan of the show. Rach and I did fall off in the last season, so we had to play catch up before we saw the movie. Of course I insisted that we go back through all six seasons, because that’s how I roll.
- One of the highlights of the show, as probably any fan will tell you, is the joy that comes from Maggie Smith’s delivery of insults and her sense of superiority as the Dowager Countess of Grantham. It was particularly satisfying to laugh with a whole audience full of people as Smith delivered zingers throughout the movie.
- Downton Abbey does rely heavily on the show’s theme song. It goes to that well a bit too often, but the grand shots of the Downton estate, which the movie also uses a lot, never grow tiring.
- Mark Addy (aka King Robert Baratheon on Game of Thrones) pops up for about two minutes as Mr. Bakewell, who runs the village’s grocery store.
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- This screening made me realize how spoiled I’ve been lately. There was an infant in the audience that started crying a few times (it wasn’t overly distracting, and the parent was considerate enough to leave the auditorium whenever the crying started). It was a jarring experience because I couldn’t remember the last time I was at a movie when a baby started crying. Lucky me, I guess.