Oh My, the King and Queen are Coming to Visit!
The Downton Abbey movie opens, as the show did, with a long and undoubtedly expensive sequence following a letter from Buckingham Palace onto the mail train. It steams north from London to a bucolic village, where someone loads the mail onto a rickety truck, unloads it, and then delivers it by motorcycle to the titular country estate, its arrival announced by a bell mounted on a wall of many similar bells.
DOWNTON ABBEY ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Michael Engler
Written by: Julian Fellowes
Starring: Michelle Dockery, Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Jim Carter, Matthew Goode, Laura Carmichael, Joanne Froggatt, Robert James-Collier
Running time: 122 min
It’s an effective if heavy-handed reminder from Downton’s creator, the excessively posh Julian Fellowes, that we’re not in the realm of smartphones and text messages anymore. Times are simpler, yet also vastly more complicated, because the most basic household tasks require an army of servants and lackeys. That letter bears news of a royal visit to Downton Abbey, and the staff has just two weeks to prepare! That’s it. That’s the plot. Cue endless montages of servants polishing silver, winding clocks, decanting wine, and mowing expansive lawns.
While no one expected this cinematic continuation of the long-running PBS series to break new ground, a few surprises would have been nice. Personally, I was hoping O’Brien would come back from India and burn the place down, Mrs. Danvers-style. Instead, we get a greatest-hits remix of all the elements that have inspired such widespread and lingering affection for a show that jumped the shark midway through Season 3. Carson splutters! The Dowager Duchess, played by the eternal Maggie Smith, makes snide quips! Moseley does something cringeworthy! Lady Edith feel sorry for herself! Daisy mouths off about socialism! Barrow takes baby steps towards queer self-actualization! As with a hit sitcom, the fun lies in watching familiar characters behave in utterly predictable ways when confronting a hopelessly-contrived scenario.
Though Downton Abbey is famous for killing off its most beloved characters, the cast is still too crowded for Fellowes to squeeze them into a two-hour movie. Bates and Baxter barely register, and Matthew Goode is AWOL for most of the movie. Fellowes reduces Lord and Lady Grantham to peripheral characters in their own home. We hardly see the various Crawley children, much less hear them. There’s a whole royal family to get to know, and they’ve brought their own retinue of servants.
But viewers ought to be grateful for some streamlining of a plotline that would have stretched over a whole season of the show. Cousin Rose, played in the show by the now-ubiquitous Lily James, and Shirley MacLaine are blessedly absent, and there’s precious little hand-wringing over the estate’s finances. There are plenty of subplots—Someone is stealing knickknacks! The boiler is broken! The new plumber is hot! Edith’s ballgown still hasn’t arrived! It might rain!—but Fellowes resolves them in a timely fashion, leaving space for plenty of classic Isobel and Violet banter, a new romance for Branson, and a powerfully emotional scene between Lady Mary and her grandmother.
Apart from that steam train, Fellowes seems to have squandered the remainder of his big-screen budget seems on numerous helicopter shots of Highclere Castle, a couple of big set pieces like a military parade and a ball with a full orchestra, miles of patriotic bunting, and some truly extraordinary hats. All of this is sure to delight fans, who will have pre-ordered their tickets weeks ago, but newcomers may be puzzled by the retrograde messages that pervade all this real estate porn: royalty is great, people with repulsive politics can be decent at the core, and big country houses are valuable—nay, essential—to the rural economy and morale. As the final waltz goes on and on, one gets the feeling that Downton Abbey doesn’t know quite how to end, or maybe just doesn’t want to say goodbye to this privileged, obsolete world.