Review: Downton Abbey — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

If you liked Downton Abbey the TV show, you’ll love Downton Abbey the movie, which manages to cram a season’s worth of scandals, drama, romance — and even a Christmas finale — into two gloriously British hours.

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Downton Abbey

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Rating: PG-13

Run Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

Stars: Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith, Jim Carter

Writer: Julian Fellowes

Director: Michael Engler

Few TV series end as utterly satisfactorily as did Downton Abbey three years ago: The righteous were rewarded, the scoundrels were either put down or redeemed, the titular estate seemed poised to thrive in the uncertain years ahead.

So as much as I loved the show, I found reports that creator/writer Julian Fellowes had come up with a big-screen sequel somewhat underwhelming. Downton Abbey was pretty perfect. What could he do for an encore?

The answer: Don’t change a thing. And that, for a die-hard Downton Abbey fan, is the best possible news.

 Downton Abbey the movie is not so much an encore as a seamless continuation of Downton Abbey the TV series. Aside from the fact that this time around the screen is bigger and the popcorn tastes better, everything else seems exactly as it should be.

As the film opens, it is 1927 — barely a year after the final TV episode. Britain is still recovering from the trauma of the Great War, and in an apparent attempt to buck up everyone’s spirit, King George V and Queen Mary are embarking on a nationwide tour.

(l-r.) Elizabeth McGovern stars as Lady Grantham, Harry Hadden-Paton as Lord Hexham, Laura Carmichael as Lady Hexham, Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham and Michael Fox as Andy in DOWNTON ABBEY, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Jaap Buitendijk / Focus Features

In the film’s opening minutes, a letter arrives: The Royal entourage will be making an overnight stop at Downton Abbey.

And there you have it: that’s the plot. Houseguests.

Downstairs, the staff is aquiver with planning menus and jockeying for positions of responsibility. But soon the King’s bullheaded butler shows up and informs them their services will not be needed: the Royal staff will take over the house.

Of course, we know what he doesn’t know: That the stoic manager Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), the feisty cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) and take-no-prisoners head butler Mr. Barrow (Robert James-Collier) are not to be trifled with.

Upstairs, the family barely contains its excitement beneath their stiff-upper-lip posturing.

Michelle Dockery stars as Lady Mary Talbot and Matthew Goode as Henry Talbot in DOWNTON ABBEY, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Jaap Buitendijk / Focus Features

“Are you excited?” the lady of the house (Elizabeth McGovern, with that dentist receptionist smile) asks her stuffy-but-lovable husband (Hugh Bonneville, starchy as a bag of potatoes).

“Would it be common to admit it?” he deadpans.

The original series ended each season with what producers called a “Christmas Special,” in which all the loose ends from the previous eight episodes were improbably tied together: murder charges were dropped, interpersonal conflicts were resolved, the Upstairs nobility were reminded once again of how the Downstairs folk were really just extended family members.

Here, that season-long structure is telescoped into a two-hour window. At times it seems like a tight squeeze, but the payoffs are handsome.

Happily for fans, echoes of previous scandals and traumas continue to reverberate through the abbey’s stone halls. Barrow, still coming to terms with his homosexuality, finds himself in a dangerously compromising position — only to be rescued by an unlikely ally. Mr. Carson, the retired butler (Jim Carter), is cajoled back into service for the Royal visit, much to Barrow’s chagrin. And while the Dowager Countess Violet (the indispensible Maggie Smith) continues her sniping contests with frenemy Isobel (Penelope Wilton), she has found a new target for her verbal barbs: Queen Mary’s Lady-in-Waiting (Imelda Staunton), a relative who she’s convinced is stealing her son’s inheritance.

That these and other storylines entangle each other until the narrative becomes as dense as a hedgerow matters not. Downton Abbey is a reunion in the best sense: Nearly two dozen characters, all of whom found varying levels of affection in the hearts of millions of devoted viewers worldwide, each get a welcome moment in the spotlight; some to say apparent goodbyes, others to leave tantalizing hints of yet another return as the clouds of the Second World War gather on the Hampshire horizon.

Happily, rough-edged gentleman’s gentleman Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) and his sweet wife Anna (Joanne Froggat) — both of whom barely escaped the gallows for murders during the show’s run — are spared further drama this time around. And there’s even a hint of long-overdue happiness for handsome, perpetually heartbroken Tom Branson (Allen Leech). We’ve felt sorry for Tom ever since the family’s youngest daughter died in childbirth, leaving him a widower lo these many years ago. But near the final fade-out, on a Downton Abbey balcony, he finds new hope for the future.

It’s one of the sweetest moments in a film that manages to hit one sweet spot after another.

Featured image: Jim Carter stars as Charles Carson in DOWNTON ABBEY, a Focus Features release. Credit: Jaap Buitendijk / Focus Features

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