I’m a lapsed Downton Abbey fan. Despite my later ambivalence, I still have a bit of goodwill toward the show. Enough goodwill, at least, to be slightly curious about a movie based on the British soap opera. Deeply silly but entertaining, the feature length version of Downton Abbey turns out to be a concoction that should appeal to fans of the show while offering little to the uninitiated.
The movie’s inciting incident justifies the grandeur of a motion picture: King George V and his wife Queen Mary, on a tour of Yorkshire in 1927, plan to stop for a night at the titular estate. All the characters that we know from the show, the aristocratic residents, the Crawleys, and their loyal servants go atwitter, getting the house ready for the momentous visit and all the drama that inevitably comes with it, including but not limited to a parade and a grand ball.
The servants work feverishly in the kitchens and on the grounds, while the aristocrats lounge in their exquisite drawing rooms drinking tea, exclaiming with long, drawn out sighs how much work they still have to do. Thing is, I don’t think the show’s creator, Julian Fellows, who returns to script here, juxtaposes these scenes ironically. We’re supposed to believe these uppercrusters are as stressed and overworked as their servants. Like I said, silly.
That Laissez-faire attitude permeates the film. The plot, such as it is, ends up a loose collection of events that play out episodically, agreeably, and without much fanfare. Sometimes, hilariously so. An assassination attempt is given about as much weight as the drama surrounding a missing ball gown.
I can’t imagine a Downton Abbey noob getting much out of the movie. This one’s for the fans, a victory lap that gives the actors one more chance to play their memorable characters and their ardent admirers one more chance to hang out with them. Without knowledge of the TV show, though, these characters will just be a parade of vaguely pleasant faces and personalities floating past the camera. If you knew nothing about them before, you certainly won’t learn anything about them here. And even fans of the show might be disappointed to see major characters shunted to the background, allowed only a few reaction lines while adding little else to the proceedings.
At least Maggie Smith’s Violet, the Crawley grand matriarch, is allowed to indulge in her character’s usual acidic wit. Meanwhile, some of (the many) subplots are enjoyable and could resonate with the uninitiated. There’s an appealing battle of wills between the Downton Abbey servants and the snooty cooks and valets attached to the visiting royals who plan to take over the Abbey squad’s duties. This leads to a kind of slobs vs. snobs scenario (which, with all the British propriety, is more like snobs vs. snobs) that should please fans of old fashioned underdog stories.
Otherwise, there isn’t much at stake in the movie, and that’s just fine with me. The show was at its best when it just hung out with its characters and didn’t try to pump up the drama, so I was glad to find the movie to be mostly in that laid-back mode. Downton Abbey is a hang out movie, a relaxed epilogue that’s sweetly inconsequential. If you’re a fan, grab a cup of tea, thrust your pinkies out, and enjoy.