I have always been something of an Anglophile. I’m fascinated with all things British, including the aristocracy. It’s no wonder that I fell in love with the movie Gosford Park by writer Julian Fellowes because of the story it tells regarding the upstairs/downstairs relationships between the household servants and those they serve. Then Fellowes turns around and creates a series for British television that took the US by storm, that being Downton Abbey, only now ample time could be spent examining each of the players and the impact they have at Downton. Now he has crafted a movie, but after all the time that has passed since the series ended, not to mention the amount of time that has also elapsed in terms of the show’s storyline, is it possible to create a movie that can still callback to that era?
Not much has changed since the series went off the air four years ago. Daughters Mary and Edith are happily married to successful men, Tom Branson is still involved with Downton given his marriage into the family (he’s still widower after the passing of his wife Sybil), Robert (Earl of Grantham) Crawley and Cora (Countess of Grantham) Crawley are still married and Robert continues to serve as Administrator of Downton, and the downstairs staff are still basically there, with the exception of a one or two characters. Mr. Carson is no longer THE Butler for Downton after marrying Mrs. Hughes and retiring, thus allowing Thomas Barrow to move up. Even Dowager Countess Violet Crawley still makes her presence known in the halls of Downton along with her best frenemy Baroness Merton. Yes, all is pretty much standard at Downton, except for one tiny bit of news. King George V and his wife are on a tour of Yorkshire and will be coming to Downton to stay the night, and their presence will do more than shake things up with everyone involved with Downton Abbey.
I was pinning a lot of hopes on this movie only because I did enjoy the series during the first couple of seasons it ran. However, what I walked away with was something of a surprise. The story itself was perfectly adequate, perhaps even predictable. You’re going to make a movie about this old English estate. What better way to throw things into chaos than by bringing in the Royal Family? This seemed like an excellent opportunity to rip off the veneer that even the serving staff have and allow us to see their true selves. This does happen as practically each of the primary characters has an unpleasant obstacle that they must contend with during the Royal’s short visit. Amusingly enough because of the portrayed sense of decorum that everyone has, including the serving staff, seeing each of them lower their mask becomes quite the breath of fresh air in regards to their characterizations. Mary carries the weight and responsibility of maintaining Downton Abbey, Mr. Carson returns to Downton under the impression that he will be of vital help, only to discover that he isn’t, the Dowager is juggling a personal situation while trying to ensure her son’s role at Downton Abbey, and poor Barrow is still struggling at trying to find happiness as a gay man in a society where it is illegal to be gay.
It is here where the lines that Fellowes wrote for these characters come off strongly, as it has been several years at least since the series ended and production on this movie began, and yet the lines each of these characters were given clearly allowed for the cast to slip right back into those roles as if they were putting on an extremely comfortable pair of shoes. This is important throughout the entire movie that each regular character carries all of the familiar elements that we remember from four years ago. However, each of the characters adapts quite admirably to the challenges they have to face to the point where I began to feel as if I was merely watching an extended episode as opposed to a feature film. The Royal Family, along with their staff, arrives and then leaves, and then the movie essentially ends. Normally I would take great exception with a movie of this nature, but Fellowes is an enormously clever writer and drops the occasional hint as to why the movie is like this. Finally, in what had to be one of the most heartwarming dialogues between the Dowager and Mary, the point is made that Downton Abbey will always stand. It will change as the people who live in it will change, but it will continue, and that is the message behind this movie for the real star of the movie is Downton Abbey itself. The castle’s walls make up the body and bones and the people who reside within are its blood. Even after they are all gone Downton Abbey will still stand. If the movie felt like nothing more than an episode or a chapter of a story it is because the people there make up that chapter in the life of Downton Abbey. This was probably my biggest surprise. Normally I would pan a movie that merely felt like an over-inflated episode, but this movie was the first one to actually get it right!
The returning cast was absolutely delightful and it was such a joy to see them again as these beloved characters. Some had much more prominent roles than others, yet it is their coming together in an ensemble that became magical. While each of them was wonderful, the two that shone more than any of the others were Maggie Smith as the Dowager and Penelope Wilton as Baroness Merton. Since the earliest years of the series, these two have not only had one of the most fabulous contentious relationships, but Fellowes writes some of the most wonderful lines and quips that each of them expresses. This comes as no wonder since these two wonderful ladies have become increasingly more popular because of the series. I can only say that I would have had a dreadful time trying to keep a serious face and not laugh out loud during the filming of their scenes. And speaking of laughter, while the show has been known for its chuckles from time to time, Downton Abbey went off the deep end in one scene and it was so outrageously absurd (deliberately so) that the entire audience was in complete hysterics. This was yet another surprise that a show known for its dry English wit could pull out a joke of such magnitude that it had me gasping for air from laughing! Even now as I think back on it I simply can’t help but smile and offer up a slight giggle.
Again, this movie was a complete surprise. There were some differences in that with a bigger budget the movie could have more scenes showing off the lands that Downton was built on, as well as dwell on some Royal fanfare, but where I expected more of that I was instead given much more of the familiar that I saw in the series. I never expected to like that, but given the tone of this movie’s message I ended up appreciating this very fact about the movie’s episodic tone. What’s more, while I have been to many movies that thrilled, or excited, or scared, or moved me in some fashion, it is a rare thing to see a movie that I actually “enjoyed.” I truly enjoyed Downton Abbey. There were only a couple of story elements that I would have liked seeing receive more treatment and development, but aside from that, I found Downton Abbey to be a thoroughly enjoyable movie.
Downton Abbey receives 4 out of 5 crowns!
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