Downton Abbey was directed by Michael Engler from a script by original series creator Julian Fellowes, and depicts the continuing story of the Crawleys, a wealthy family that owns a large estate in the English countryside during the early 20th century. Acting more as an extended finale to the hit show by the same title (rather than as a singular feature film in its own right), which ran for 6 seasons as part of PBS’ Masterpiece Classic anthology, the drama begins with the revelation that the King and Queen of England will be coming to stay at the Abbey, delighting (and occasionally terrifying) the Crawleys and their entire staff. After rushing to get everything prepared just right and making sure everything is proper for the royal visit, however, further complications arise by the arrival of a few staff members sent ahead of the King and Queen in order to prepare for their stay, and the inhabitants of Downton Abbey realize that in order to impress the pair, they may well have to take some risks and play things a little bit dirty. With the royal arrival due in just a few days, plus a parade and dinner to prepare, the staff must band together to ensure the King & Queen’s visit is of the finest quality and premiere nature; otherwise, it could spell the end of Downton Abbey forever.
There’s no denying Downton Abbey has a huge following among television viewers in the US (as far as the UK is concerned, I have no idea how big the show is over there), and if that wasn’t known by some, its utter domination of the box office opening against two major releases made it known by sheer force of will. People who don’t normally go to the movies that often rushed out to see this film, and (not content to just take the opening weekend’s winning spot) it continued to make scores of money well into the first week of release. For a film spun off from any TV show, that’s a huge amount of cash inflow, but for one with such a specific niche, that’s astounding, although not entirely shocking. For years, the show has kept up a good reputation by telling engaging stories with interesting characters being played by a murderer’s row of legendary character actors from Great Britain that you’ve seen in various films over the years (like the Harry Potter and Paddington series), including (but not limited to) Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, Maggie Smith, Matthew Goode, Allen Leach, Elizabeth McGovern, Laura Carmichael, Imelda Staunton, Sophie McShera, and many, many more.
Speaking as someone who has not seen one single episode of the Downton Abbey show, I must admit I am writing this review from a place of more uninformed context than most others who kept up with the program through its 6-season run, which means (if you watched the show) you might read some things in here that could be easily explained within that context; nevertheless, the nature of what I do keeps me from being able to binge an entire 6-season show in the middle of keeping up with what comes out in theaters, so it’s more than likely I’ll be missing a few points that other fans of the series might have caught, and I do apologize in advance to those of you who will be frustrated or confused by own ignorance. What I can say with confidence is that Downton Abbey series fans will love this film (as did my aunt and sister, both of whom had kept up with the series and saw the film with me) as a conclusion to the now-iconic show, and for everyone else, the movie possesses a sort of thoroughly enjoyable charm from its opening minutes to its final frame that should prove enticing even for non-series viewers.
Apart from a smaller British film called The Chaperone (which released last year and starred) Elizabeth McGovern and Haley Lu Richardson), this marks Michael Engler’s largest step yet into feature filmmaking, and although in some cases the establishing shots and extended narrative do seem a bit stretched out for their own good, Downton Abbey is engaging enough that it’s less of a problem and more of an observation, especially since he’s worked in British television (including on many episodes of this very series) for many years, and thus has a firm grip on wherever the story goes. In some respects, the film does feel like an episode of television stretched out to feature length, but the way Engler frames the proceedings not covered by establishing shots give the whole thing a beautiful cinematic sheen, as if the film were wearing the coat of a feature epic, which easily plays into one of the show’s greatest strengths, in that it finds drama in the most minute of setbacks. Each time even a minor inconvenience is brought to light, the camera is exactly where it needs to be to capture the person (or persons) this or that issue will effect most, and how they respond to such a discovery. This is a beautiful-looking (and sounding) movie, and while I wouldn’t look for it to be burning up the Academy’s ballet boxes come January, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it score a few nominations in the design categories, even in Original Score (though how much of the music is native to the film vs how much is native to the show may ultimately disqualify it from that specific race).
The film is also quite funny, as series creator Julian Fellowes performs a smoothly-flowing ballet with the script so that it finds a proper balance between drama and farce, playing into each performer’s inherent comedic strengths when called for, though it’s Maggie Smith that ends up stealing the show as far as comic relief is concerned, with Sophie McShera not far behind. Yet, as funny as the film is, the charm is possesses comes from a genuine love of these characters and this storytelling world one can feel oozing out of every frame of the piece, and the heart the movie has is what fuels the film’s more soft-spoken moments. I was surprised to find myself tearing up and tensing my shoulders in a spot or two, once again aided by Maggie Smith’s scene-stealing performance, but often supplemented by the those of Allen Leach and Michelle Dockery, both of whom take the lion’s share of the screen-time not devoted to the kitchen staff. Each performer does uniformly excellent work, but it’s these four mentioned in this paragraph that truly bring the whole picture together.
If the film has any flaws at all, they’re likely due to an unfamiliarity with the series itself, as the movie seems to run a bit overlong and scattered for non-series fans, as grand as it wants to be it can’t really shake still feeling like just a higher-budget tv finale, which occasionally makes one question the necessity of a theatrical release, although (as we’ve discussed) this doesn’t exactly break the film either. There are a few spots where some issues between characters seem to drag out longer than necessary (particularly with Maggie Smith and Imelda Staunton’s characters), which indicates that even as I’m sure the series would have handled such proceedings the way the film does, the movie could have had about 10 minutes cut out for the sake of pacing; for a television show, lengthening the conflict is good since you need to fill a certain number of episodes and you have time for that conflict to play out, but for film, pacing is key, and some conflicts that are ultimately less important than others could have been trimmed for the sake of brevity. As well, while I wouldn’t consider it a weakness given the film’s overall context, non-series viewers may want to be prepared for a lack of character development where some of the less principle cast are concerned; the film essentially picks up right where the show left off, and as such, doesn’t have time to go back and re-establish the characters for those unfamiliar with them and their specific nuances, as The Avengers did for its Phase One films.
In the end, even though Downton Abbey certainly won’t be for everyone across all demographics, Michael Engler’s extended series finale works well enough as a feature film that even audiences without familiarity with the PBS series will find something to enjoy about it. Some rudimentary “flaws” may stem from an unfamiliarity with the show, and to be true, the film plays a bit overlong (even for as much ground as it covers), but overall, the charm of the whole proceeding is what carries it through, and if nothing else, it’s a pleasant two hours of fun with the English. The production is beautiful, the performances are excellent, the story is engaging, and to those series vets that have stayed with these characters for 6 years (the most important audience for a movie like this), this film cements the legacy of Downton Abbey as one that will live on for a long time to come.
I’m giving “Downton Abbey” an 8/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.