Let it be clear: this is a movie for fans of the show. Those who revelled in Downton Abbey’s six seasons, on air from 2010 and 2015, will grin with happiness at the first sight of the exterior of Downton Abbey, the familiar music swelling.
The television show left off New Year’s Eve 1925, and the film version picks up two years later in 1927. Time must’ve moved slower in the olden days, because it’s almost like we’ve picked up exactly where we left off, all our favorite characters still alive and well.
“The king and queen are coming to Downton,” one of the film’s first lines (but not the very first) is what drives the plot. The family and servants of Downton Abbey must prepare for and deal with the dramatic, whirlwind visit of the King and Queen of England. Beyond that, there aren’t many developed subplots: we only briefly see Anna and Mr. Bates’ child who was born in the last episode, we don’t learn the name of Mary’s new baby until the last thirty minutes of the film and we never know how Carson’s illness that forced him into retirement seemed to magically disappear. The two hours and three minutes go by quite quickly, and the time is split relatively evenly between all characters, meaning nobody gets all that much. In television, you know you’re coming back for another episode and can refocus on a neglected character; you don’t have that liberty in a movie. And I don’t think this movie needed that liberty.
This is all not to say that there aren’t exciting storylines, because there are: Tom manages to disrupt a planned gun assassination of the king during a parade in the village, a plot point that hearkens back to his status as an Irish revolutionary and marks his full transition from an “outsider” to a member of the Crawley family proper; the Dowager Countess reveals some sad news with her usual grace and wit; Barrow finally finds some sense of solace regarding his sexuality; and a distant relative visiting with the royal family brings with her a mysterious lady’s maid, stirring up some drama among the family. Fun fact: the ‘distant relative’ is portrayed by Imelda Staunton, and there’s a cool dichotomy seeing her on screen with Maggie Smith, who plays the Dowager Countess. You last saw them on-screen together in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, in which they faced off as Dolores Umbridge and Minerva McGonagall, respectively.
The old anxieties of the latter seasons of the show are also back: will Downton survive modernization? We can’t be sure, but the castle gets a perfect romantic ending that Downton Abbey is known for. Just a few minutes before the credits roll, Henry Talbot (Mary’s husband) finally arrives and runs straight up the stairs to kiss his wife, assuring her that Downton will be around forever. Having been invested for six seasons, I was compelled to believe him.
The acting was superb, as always. It’s wonderful to see actors return to characters they spent so long getting to know. The cast list is too lengthy to get into too many specifics about everyone, but there were some noteworthy portrayals. Smith is hilariously witty, in the English sense of the word, and every other line of hers had me in stitches. Michelle Dockery seems to have softened her portrayal of Mary, a direction I’m glad she took the character, considering what she went through in the final season of the show. Rob James-Collier (who plays Barrow) seems to be the only person who has aged a day since 2015, and thank god — he’s come into his own as the butler of Downton, and there’s no longer deep, dark circles under his eyes. Even those new characters do a good job of joining the ranks of the Downton Abbey cast, a task I’m sure was daunting.
One of the best aspects of this movie is its absolutely beautiful cinematography. I’d even go so far to say it’s Oscar-worthy. When shots of sparkling glasses, fancy trays and the at-times-boring English landscape at all hours of the day can evoke emotion, you know the shot is amazing. Much of the movie is spent on shots that don’t add anything in the way of plot, but they bring viewers a comforting sense of home, which I would argue is just as important in this movie.
As I said, this is a movie for the fans. It’s a feel-good movie, more about dwelling in the world of Downton Abbey rather than thinking critically about it. The movie doesn’t wrap up anything — the last episode of the show did a great enough job leaving no strings untied. The movie may not be ‘great’ by certain standards, but take into consideration what the purpose of this movie really is: one (possibly last) escapist chance at revisiting our favorite characters, our favorite places. The last shot of the movie moves us away from Downton (what else could serve as the proper ending?), and I left the theater with a sense of nostalgic fulfillment, wanting to immediately rewatch the series.