*** out of ****
(for thematic elements, some suggestive material, and language)
Released: September 20, 2019
Runtime: 122 minutes
Directed by: Michael Engler
Starring: Michelle Dockery, Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith, Elizabeth McGovern, Laura Carmichael, Allen Leech, Penelope Wilton, Jim Carter, Phyllis Logan, Joanne Froggatt, Lesley Nichol, Sophie McShera, Robert James-Collier, Brendan Coyle, Kevin Doyle, Raquel Cassidy, Imelda Staunton, Tuppence Middleton, Harry Hadden-Paton, Douglas Reith, David Haig, Geraldine James, Simon Jones, Matthew Goode
This is Anglophile fan service at its most delightful.
After a six-season run that saw this British TV series become a cultural phenomenon on both sides of the pond, Downton Abbey jumps from small screen to big in this continuation of the Crawley family and the commoners who serve them. It delivers everything diehard fans could hope for with class and elan, and works seamlessly as a stylish stand-alone for the uninitiated (but you can watch a 10-minute series recap here if you’d like).
Highclere Castle (the real-life estate stand-in) has never looked better both inside and out (but especially in the sweeping, soaring exterior shots), and when set against composer John Lunn‘s iconic themes the whole experience becomes a luscious cinematic bonbon.
Picking up in 1927 (roughly 18 months after the show’s series finale), the entire cast returns for more upstairs / downstairs drama in the waning era of early 20th Century English aristocracy. The proceedings are as episodic as before (a wise choice, considering the number of characters in play) but the various subplots swirl around one spectacular premise: the King and Queen of England are paying a visit to the Crawley estate. For a show that was already a romanticized celebration of classism, this conceit embraces its pre-modern notion with shameless, benevolent propriety.
Written by series creator Julian Fellowes (an Oscar-winner for Gosford Park, and sole writer of every Downton episode), the whole tapestry unfolds like a lush two-hour encore of the sort that Downton fans have been pining for ever since the series wrapped in 2015. And for Abbey dilettantes, it gleams with the elegance of a Merchant / Ivory period piece – but with a lighter, more sentimental touch.
That’s not to say there isn’t requisite intrigue; there is, at times leaning too heavily into soapy melodrama (as the series was wont to do), but even if the perils never get so quite as high as rape, death or jury trials (as seen in some of the show’s darker storylines), what’s at stake for the characters – from lordships to legacies – truly resonates.
There’s added excitement, too, with the pending royal arrival. It’s an honor that, even with its anxieties, is carried with a giddy exhilaration that gushes off the screen. It also makes for comedic high drama, including a moment involving Kevin Doyle’s lovably-bumbling butler Mr. Molesley that triggered one of the loudest collective gasps I’ve ever heard in a theater. That nimbly entertaining tone gives this rigorous recreation of a particular epoch the air of a fairy tale fantasy.
As Mr. Carson assures Lady Mary, God surely is a monarchist.
His winking vouch is just one example of Fellowes dry, rapier wit, a flair for which he seems to possess an endless reserve of. It’s on display most notably in fan favorite Dowager Countess Violet Crawley, the snob-with-a-heart-of-gold matriarch played by Maggie Smith. Her verbal tête-à-tête’s with Penelope Wilton’s Isobel Merton are as comically sharp as ever. Imelda Staunton (not most widely as Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter films) enters the fray as well, adding a new layer of intrigue to the Crawley family.
One of the miracles is how deftly Fellowes balances this huge ensemble. Each character has their moments and none feel neglected. That’s much harder than Fellowes makes it look as he crams about a season’s worth of narrative into 120 minutes, and under Michael Engler’s lithe direction it never feels never rushed.
Fellowes also pays off some of the show’s more open-ended character resolutions, most notably Thomas Barrow’s (Robert James-Collier), the once-conniving staff rogue now ascendant to head butler, and a suppressed gay man forced to live in secret. His subplot gives that series arc more of an affirming hope while still staying true to the strictures of the time, honestly portrayed yet still filtered through a PG-rated lens.
Escapist without being frivolous, Downton Abbey is as intellectual as it is accessible, the kind of sophisticated diversion that not only transports and satisfies; it warms the heart.