For its first three series, there wasn’t a show on television as romantic or enchanting as Downton Abbey. That being said, Julian Fellowes’ historical drama was never the same once Series 4 commenced. Without giving away any spoilers, a key ingredient that made those early years so special was lost forever and it could never recapture the same magic. Nevertheless, the show’s second half still wasn’t without its highlights and Fellowes left the Crawley family on an appropriate note. Likewise, Downton Abbey’s first cinematic outing will prove satisfying for long-time fans, even if it doesn’t reach the heights of those original three series.
The year is now 1927, roughly two years after the show ended, and everything seems to be same at Downton. The Crawleys are still living the high life, their servants are still content, and everyone is blissfully unaware that The Great Depression is only a couple years away. Actually, seeing the Crawleys work their way through the Great Depression would provide a great basis for a sequel. For now, however, Michael Engler’s film adaptation centers on King George and Queen Mary’s impending stay at Downton. As it turns out, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) is the cousin of the Queen’s lady-in-waiting, Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton). Her arrival at Downton doesn’t sit well with Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith), who resents Maud for not making Robert her heir. And yes, this rivalry does amount to a rematch between Dolores Umbridge and Minerva McGonagall!
Will Robert receive Maud’s inheritance or will he need to settle for already being insanely wealthy? Yeah, most of the conflict surrounding the Crawley family here is admittedly of the First World variety, but what about Downton’s colorful servants? Surely, they have a pressing matter to overcome. Well… their subplot basically boils down to whether they’ll get to serve the King and Queen dinner or if the snooty Royal Staff will take over. It’s not exactly like the time when Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) was on trial for murder or when Anna (Joanne Froggatt) was assaulted. There is a subplot involving Tom Branson (Allen Leech) and an attempt on the King’s life, but that’s resolved rather unceremoniously. The tone of the movie is kept pretty laidback, which has its advantages and its drawbacks.
Since Downton Abbey was always a cinematic show, it translates quite well to the silver screen with gorgeous production values and a refined cast. Being a movie, however, the audience expects the story to take these characters to bold, unprecedented places. Instead, the film feels more like one of the show’s Christmas specials… minus the Christmas. As far as specials go, Downton Abbey is still hard to resist. Although there isn’t much to the film in terms of plot, the characters haven’t lost their appeal. Tom shares a sweet romance with Maud’s maid Lucy (Tuppence Middleton) while closeted butler Barrow (Robert James-Collier) finally finds a significant other. Naturally, it’s Smith who once again steals the show with her sick burns, as well as a surprisingly touching passing of the torch between her and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery).
Downton Abbey is like a pleasant high school reunion. You catch up with some old friends, have a few laughs, and then return to your life. The film doesn’t really change much in the long run, which will leave some fans disappointed. For anyone who just wants to see the Crawley’s again, though, it’s a charming invitation worth accepting. Of course, if Fellowes is already devising plans for another film, I’d advise him to take my Great Depression angle into consideration.