They’re back. Nearly four years since wrapping a six-season TV run, the Downton Abbey crew has returned in a feature film that is mouthwateringly sumptuous, sometimes silly and, ultimately, altogether satisfying. It’s a movie that stands well enough on its own, although fans of the series will savor its nuances and familiar rhythms.
Like any soap opera, this gorgeously dressed and finely acted one written by Julian Fellowes and directed by Michael Engler is chockablock with mini-dramas, like a full season in one two-hour sitting. Subplots bubble up around class divides, an inheritance, a hot plumber, a kleptomaniac, a health crisis and a mystery woman. And that’s just for starters.
In the time it takes for music to swell and the camera to reveal the majestic Yorkshire estate in all its glory, we’re whisked instantly back to 1927. Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), and wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) receive a letter announcing that King George and Queen Mary will visit Downton Abbey, effectively rattling everyone – upstairs, downstairs, in her lady’s chamber. The food to prepare. Silverware to polish. Lawns to mow. Gowns to order. And politics to sort out for Tom Branson (Allen Leech), the ex-chauffeur-turned son-in-law at the center of two major plot strands. One involves a gun; the other, love.
Hawk-eyeing it all is Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), sporting a bob as blunt as her attitude, as she wonders if they should just “chuck it all” in at the estate. Times are changing after all. Her sister, Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), seen behind the wheel of a spiffy little motorcar, yearns to be back in the driver’s seat of her life. Brooding gay butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) finds a handsome kindred spirit.
And of course, Dowager Countess Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) looms large, as her every line releases tart little slivers like a talking Pez dispenser. Asked if she supports the budding relationship between a couple that would be beneficial to her, she quips, “I’d lick the stamps myself.” She hurls more acidic epithets at distant relative Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), who holds the key to the family fortune.
Fellowes’ script falls into a few categories. He has a gift for quiet conversations packing big emotional heft. (That’s often the case with Dockery and Joanne Froggatt, as her faithful lady’s maid Anna). On the other, dialogue creaks as characters often over-explain. Meanwhile, a twist in which Downton’s downstairs staff, led in part by stately Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), outwits the disrespectful royal staff is rather contrived. Still, it gets to the point about power and pride – and how everyone deserves some of each.
In the end, the story is a scenic fantasy where romances bloom like rosebuds with the touch of a hand or the gift of a prized keepsake. And if there’s a dilemma? Wait five minutes, or thereabouts, and these unruly story threads will be tied up in neat little bows. It’s no wonder why it’s a pleasure to take another spin down the Abbey road.