Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel
Downton Abbey was a television phenomenon. This upstairs-downstairs drama captured the attention and the hearts of millions of viewers. In its 52 episodes (2010 to 2015), it followed the aristocratic Crawley family, the heirs of Grantham. From opulent drawing rooms to the sparse maids’ quarters, we came to know the estate and its inhabitants. The series opened with the 1912 sinking of the Titanic and spanned through World War I and its aftermath, closing New Year’s Eve, 1925.
We watched everything from births to deaths; we witnessed engagements broken and fulfilled. Investments were made and newspapers ironed. Throughout, the Crawleys and their staff grew in depth and understanding, reflecting a changing world. Downton Abbey was television at its very best.
And now, we are treated to a feature film. It is 1927 and the Crawleys are preparing for the impending visit of King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James).
Creator and screenwriter Julian Fellowes has wisely chosen to celebrate the series rather than reinvent it. There is the usual intrigue, romance and drama, but it never tips the scales into some of the episodes’ darker corners. Instead, we see the house and village preparing for this momentous event. Threading through much of the film is the friction between the snobbish royal entourage who are sent ahead and the Downton staff. The result tips slightly toward sitcom but is forgivable in the overall jubilant spirit of the movie.
The majority of the residents are here. At the center is Hugh Bonneville’s charming Earl of Grantham and his American wife, Cora, played with great warmth by Elizabeth McGovern. Michelle Dockery, as Lady Mary, and Laura Carmichael, as Lady Edith (now Marchioness of Hexham), are true to their sibling bickering but there is an underlying respect – or at least acceptance – that grew throughout the series’ run. At Lady Mary’s request, retired butler Carson (the up-tightly lovable Jim Carter) is engaged to temporarily take over from an off-put Barrow (Robert James-Collier), who always manages to balance good and bad intentions. If Brendan Coyle’s Mr. Bates is less brooding, it is nice to see his happy marriage with lady’s maid Anna (lovely Joanne Froggatt). Perhaps this best describes the film: It rarely frets but embraces an inner brightness.
The entire cast is as wonderful as ever. Allen Leech’s Tom Branson maintains his moral compass and is given a good bit to do in the film, highlighting his transition from Irish rebel to staunch family supporter. Phyllis Logan’s housekeeper Mrs. Hughes still functions as the below-stairs mother hen. Her camaraderie with the put-upon cook, Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), remains strong.
But, it is Maggie Smith as the wry-witted, never-wrong Violet Crawley, dowager countess of Grantham, who steals every moment she is on screen with her golden quips and sly asides. Smith’s perfect sparring with the reliable Penelope Wilton’s Isobel (now Lady Merton) make for some of the most delightful moments. Smith shows a beautiful contrast in a deeply moving scene with Lady Mary toward the end of the story.
There is the introduction of a Crawley cousin hereto not mentioned. Imelda Staunton is Lady Maud Bagshaw, and the issue of who shall inherit her fortune becomes a subplot. There is also a romantic element connected to this legacy which will probably come to play in the much hoped-for sequel.
Yes, there some notably absent characters: Cousin Lady Rose (Lily James) and Lord Grantham’s sister, Lady Rosamond (Samantha Bond), with the former not even mentioned. Sadly missing is David Robb’s stalwart Clarkson, the family doctor who bridged the world of castle and village.
It is an opulent film and the production values are dazzling. Never have the locations and the clothing looked so rich nor has the music been this lush. It is both a Christmas present and a Valentine.
Downton Abbey is a gift for the followers of the series. For newcomers, it would be a costume drama without the drama. For fans, it is a joyous and welcomed “Welcome home.”
Photos by Jaap Buitendijk, Focus Features