Editor’s Note: minor spoilers for the “Downton Abbey” television series follow, in order to relate the new film to the narrative’s larger arc.
As difficult as it is to imagine what someone without a working knowledge of the wildly popular PBS drama “Downton Abbey” would think of the new big-screen version, it’s almost as impossible to believe that someone wouldn’t be swept up in the elegance, charm, humor and intrigue of the Crawley family and their small army of servants who prove integral to the success of both the estate and the film.
Set in a home in which Class is practically built into the foundation, it may be tough for more modern eyes to get past the idea that being a servant was considered a noble, even enviable, position in a certain day and age in England. Since Downton Abbey (both the series and the movie) always strives for historical accuracy above all else, it would be disingenuous for it to portray the servants as embittered at their status, especially in this household where so many of them are considered family.
While the series often tended to be serious and soap opera-ish to a fault, the film has opted to be a bit more lighthearted, perhaps in an effort to be more accessible (although I suspect they simply enjoy the idea of going out on a high-spirited note, if this is in fact the last time this team work together). Written by series creator Julian Fellowes and directed by frequent helmer and TV veteran Michael Engler, Downton Abbey drops us into a typical day on the estate, which is immediately interrupted by a letter from Buckingham Palace alerting the Crawleys that the king and queen (that would be King George V and Queen Mary) of England will be popping by on their way to another destination. Not surprisingly, the house is sent into a tizzy as both the upstairs and the downstairs residents scramble to prepare.
For those who didn’t watch the series, it’s important to note that the show never favored masters or servants in terms of the amount of time it spent telling their stories. Fellowes and company considered everyone’s story equal in value, and as a result, audiences were swept up in everyone’s lives. Characters came and went—some were killed, some simply left for different lives—but the core cast returns for the film, and picks things up like no time has passed (the show’s last episode aired at the end of 2015). In the film’s two-hour running time, the filmmakers manage to give just about every character at least one defining moment that lets us know where they are in life and how they might be shifting in their outlooks on the world.
Crawley patriarch Robert, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), is wondering if keeping such a sizable estate is ultimately worth it. He’s been slowly transitioning control of Downton to his daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery), but even she seems less than sure this life is still for her. She even asks her husband (Matthew Goode) how he would feel about not living there any longer. The family is rounded out by the lady of the house Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), Mary’s perpetually unlucky sister Edith (Laura Carmichael), and of course, Robert’s mother, Violet (Maggie Smith), whose every line is quotable and stinging.
As with the series, the most relatable character on the show was always Tom Branson (Allen Leech), a one-time Irish-born chauffeur for the family who married the Crawley’s youngest daughter (who died in childbirth), and has since become a trusted advisor on many estate-management matters; he’s also a singularly nice man who is plain spoken and doesn’t allow matters of decorum to sway him the way it does others in his extended family. That being said, he’s proven time and time again that he is loyal to the Crawleys; his wife loved them deeply, and so does he. Still, his views on the monarchy do spark some concern during the course of the movie.
What the staff doesn’t realize about the prospect of a royal visit is that the king and queen are preceded by their own battalion of butlers, ladies in waiting, and chefs, all of whom essentially push out the existing staff for the duration of the stay, denying the house servants the opportunity of doting on their majesties—something that does not sit well with any of the Downton folks. Mary drags the retired former head of household Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) back to oversee things, which ruffles the feathers of those who took his place. The usual suspects still occupy the estate’s lower regions, including Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt) and husband Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle), Daisy (Sophie McShera), Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), and a handful of others.
One new addition to this sea of familiar faces is a cousin to the Crawleys, Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), who is the Queen’s right-hand, but also holds the power to determine whether Robert is the rightful heir to a great deal of the family fortune. She seems determined not to allow Robert to have the money once she dies, but there’s a great mystery as to who she plans to pass it on to and why, an issue that, years earlier, drove a wedge between Maud and the family.
There aren’t any real bad guys in Downton Abbey (unless you count a would-be royal assassin, who barely registers in the story), and there aren’t really any major turns for the worse as there often was on the series. The film seems to act like a keepsake for long-time fans who just want to know that their favorite characters are doing all right and perhaps even thriving, as is the case with the aforementioned Tom, who accidentally makes fast friends with the king and queen’s grown daughter Princess Mary (Kate Phillips).
It’s that relationship alone that makes me hopeful that the filmmakers keep bringing us these wonderful characters on the big screen every few years. I don’t need them to return every year, as they once did, but an occasional visit would be lovely. The stakes are both high and low, depending on how you view the importance of these fictional lives. Like many, I have grown to care a great deal about the folks that occupy Downton, and I still get a bit of a rush whenever any actor from the show appears in something else. If this is the end, the creators have gone out on a fitting and worthy high note, and if there are to be more, I eagerly await what comes next.
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