FILM REVIEW – DOWNTON ABBEY. With Michelle Dockery, Matthew Goode, Tuppence Middleton, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton. Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Michael Engler. Rated PG for thematic elements, some suggestive material, and language. 122 minutes.
People going to see DOWNTON ABBEY in theaters will fall into one of two categories: those who are devotees of the British television series which ran from 2010 to 2015 and engaged American viewers on PBS, and those who are coming into the movie knowing nothing about this world. Some of the latter will be dragged along by their significant others or, like this reviewer, are there because it’s one of this week’s major releases.
So if you find yourself encountering the Crawley family (and their relatives and servants) for the first time, here’s the good news: you may not be moved to track down the 52 episodes of the series, but the movie is a pleasant and entertaining story in the “Upstairs, Downstairs” mold. It is not difficult to follow for those encountering these characters for the first time. Others will have to judge how it plays to the show’s fans, but indications are that it does, and quite well.
To make the movie self-contained, writer Julian Fellowes, creator of the series, has set up a story where the King and Queen (Simon Jones, Geraldine James) will be staying overnight at the storied estate. This sets up a number of situations, such as Violet (series regular Maggie Smith) having to confront her cousin Maud (Imelda Staunton), who is in the Queen’s service, over the latter’s plans to leave her own properties to her companion rather than keeping it in the family.
For the servants, there’s the realization that the royal staff plans on taking over the household and considers those at Downton Abbey to be impediments to be brushed aside. The family had asked Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), the retired head butler, to return to service for this auspicious occasion. Now Mr. Bakewell (David Haig), leading the royal team, makes it clear that Carson and the other servants are deemed unworthy of serving the King and Queen.
There are numerous storylines going on which are easy enough to follow, but may especially resonate for those with long ties to the characters. One can see how this would appeal to those viewers fascinated with the British class system, where everyone knew their place, and how someone could take pride in being a servant, as with Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle), who can’t quite control himself when he finds himself in the presence of the royals.
A major attraction is Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England, which serves as the fictional title estate. Living a life of privilege in such surroundings is an alluring fantasy, even for those of us who likely would not be polished enough to, well, be hired to polish the silverware. It’s not clear if this is a one-off or if future films are planned, but there is a scene near the end where Violet anoints one of the family as the person who will keep the family and its household going into the future, while acknowledging that times inevitably change.
“Downton Abbey” is more about servicing fans of the TV series than in creating a work that stands on its own, but if you find yourself in the audience for it, it is an engaging and amiable look back at a slice of British life from a century ago.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.