The cheer that erupted when the Downton Abbey estate appeared on screen at my Coolidge preview screening rivaled the roars that surrounded me at Avengers: Endgame. People just go nuts for the Crawley family and their lavish castle!
Created by Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey, the highest-rated PBS show of all time, left the air in 2015 after six seasons (well, series) of soapy British hijinks. The story of the Crawley family and their downstairs servants enchanted the world, and film adaptation rumors started before the final Christmas special even came out. I only watched the first two series before dropping the show and skimming the AV Club recaps, as its soap opera pacing was getting to be a bit much. Obviously I was in the minority, as it seemed like the show was getting bigger every year. It’s a global phenomenon about the British aristocracy. Kind of wild!
Film adaptations of popular TV shows always feel like a special event, even if they’re terrible. Seeing The Rugrats Movie on its opening weekend in 1998 was one of the most formative events of my life. Clearly the demand for a Downton Abbey film was not exaggerated, as the film is projected to make over $30 million in its opening weekend.
The plot is shockingly simple for a show that started with the sinking of the Titanic. It is 1927, a few months after the series finale. The King and Queen of England have announced that they will be staying at Downton Abbey, to the delight and honor of the many, many returning characters. Just about every character from the tv show has returned, prim and proper and ready to welcome the audience home. Listing each character and their role would take up more of this review than necessary. The breakout character is of course Maggie Smith as the instantly iconic Dowager Countess. Almost everything she says elicited a cheer in my audience, and a teary-eyed monologue near the end of the film seems engineered to win her a Golden Globe.
Other than the Dowager Countess constantly scheming for more status, the film spends the most time with Irish son-in-law Tom (Allen Leech), whose wife, the Crawley daughter Sybil, died in childbirth during the third season, and Anna (Joanne Froggart), Lady Mary’s lady-in-waiting who is very good at her job. Tom catches the eye of the Queen’s maid’s maid (there are just so many levels to servitude here), and Anna works to keep a thief from embarrassing the Crawley family. It’s difficult to break down the plot of the film, as it’s really a collection of gorgeous sets, costumes, and British quips. Any conflicts are resolved simply, without much fanfare – even an assassination attempt. The status quo is hardly changed, which is just the way Downton likes it.
The politics of the series have never been particularly progressive. The servants love being servants because they’re “part of the family.” The cook Daisy’s ideas of independence are often played for laughs. The downstairs crew just want to serve the King and Queen, and it often feels like the Toy Story gang desperately trying to get played with. It’s not all bad, however. Thomas (Robert James-Collier), long-tormented gay butler, has a subplot that gives him a win for once. He has a night out at a secret gay bar, and even when he’s arrested, a gay servant of the King bails him out. Thomas finally has a gay friend, and it’s charming!
But that’s really all that can be said. If you were a fan of the series, you will love this film. The runtime is allegedly two hours, but it moved so quickly I thought we were done in 90 minutes. Downton Abbey is home to many, and I’m sure their doors will remain open for audiences for years to come.
Dir. Michael Engler
Now playing everywhere (though the Hassle recommends Coolidge, the Somerville, or your local mom & pop cineplex)