The typical English drama of manners, ripe with enough scandal to knock your Bobby Hat off, usually appeals only to the art house crowd in the U.S., but Downton Abbey could be different. The hit PBS TV series that inspired the film aired for six seasons, and devotees will be eager to see the big screen continuation of the saga. (The plot picks up a little more than a year after the events of the series.) Finding enough of an audience to recoup its presumably modest budget (and then some) should not be a challenge.
The question is: Does the movie have appeal to those (like me) who have never seen an episode of the show? A great movie would create a desire to seek out all six seasons as soon as possible. Alas, that’s not happening. However, the movie is good enough to warrant a look from those who heard the hype but never took in the saga. The film grows on you as it goes and, ultimately, you care about the protagonists and root for them. Given that Downton virgins will feel like a stranger at a family reunion as the film commences, this is impressive.
Written by Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park), the narrative is driven by a visit from King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) to the sprawling Crawley estate in Yorkshire, England. It’s 1927, and there is a plethora of story lines upstairs (with the Crawley family) and downstairs (with the wait staff).
Among them: The estate overseers, Robert (Hugh Bonneville), Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and their daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery) ask the retired Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) to return as head butler when Barrow (Robert James-Collier) isn’t getting the job done; widower Tom Branson (Allen Leech) is involved in a plot to assassinate the king; Robert’s mother, Violet (Maggie Smith), hates the queen’s lady-in-waiting, Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), due to an inheritance dispute; footman Andy (Michael C. Fox) gets jealous when his fiancée, the maid Daisy (Sophie McShera), flirts with a plumber (James Cartwright); the royal staff makes the Crawley staff miserable, so head housekeeper Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and lead valet Bates (Brendan Coyle) plot revenge … and so on.
The manners, traditions and customs of Downton Abbey are unique yet quirky, different yet relatable. The production and costume designs feel period-accurate; the social mores illustrate how far we’ve come as they simultaneously remind us how far we have to go. Fellowes, who also created the TV show, and director Michael Engler surely do this intentionally, but it’s subtle enough to not seem pandering.
With a return to television unlikely, Downton Abbey fans should be dragging their friends, loved ones and enemies to see the movie. As we know, the more money it makes, the more likely a sequel becomes. The film may not inspire the unfamiliar to check out the series, but it’s worthy of a moderate recommendation because it’s equal parts charming, amusing and dramatic.