Film Review: ‘Downton Abbey’

Years after the serialized drama whose story it continues left the air, “Downton Abbey” is doubly nostalgic.

Downton Abbey
Focus Features

This new feature film about the lives of a family scrapping to preserve their fortune, and those of the servants attending them, is explicitly designed as a balm for the aching hearts of those who loved watching the TV version. (Stateside, that program aired as part of PBS’s “Masterpiece” franchise from 2011 to 2016.) And, just like that series, the “Downton” film looks back even further than the early-to-mid-2010s, recalling a time of innocence and of understated glamour. That the film opens with the revelation that King George V and Queen Mary are to visit the estate and tracks the visit to its conclusion provides, among other things, an opportunity for the cast to dress in decadent, richly jewel-toned formalwear.

Not that they need a reason. The Crawley family, inhabitants of the massive estate that gives the film its name, dress for dinner nightly. But a big, multistage party in honor of the royals gives “Downton Abbey” something at its center with high enough stakes and the requisite amount of retro luxury. It also provides an opportunity for writer Julian Fellowes to stage the conversation he seemed, throughout the series’s run, to prefer having, an emphasis on the value of tradition that comes on so strong as to arrive at a stifling sort of social conservatism. “Downton Abbey” has always been, above all, about the value of preserving tradition; stripping away its muscularly written soap plotlines in favor of a thin picaresque tale of a royal visit reveals just how much of the show’s appeal is ideological.

After all, the story here is so slight that even several characters seem not to notice it’s happening. The Crawleys’ reaction to the royal visit is a certain arch bemusement; Mary (Michelle Dockery) seems put out that she’ll have to organize tasks for the servants to do in order to prepare. (As a character, Mary remains the show’s single most original, subversive idea: A sympathetic protagonist who’s less an antiheroine than an unapologetic brat.) She is eventually witness to an attempted act of grave violence and then moves on, as does the movie; she has a momentary crisis and decides she should sell the house, but is convinced by her maid (Joanne Froggatt) that the house is too important for the people who work there — not merely as a place of employment but as the center of their emotional lives. Mary moves on. 

Similarly blithe-spirited are the lord and lady of the house (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern), who make expressions of vague concern while remaining basically assured that the situation will sort itself out. And the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), more than ever a one-liner machine deployed to pick up the energy level regardless of whether her utterances track with the situation, is consumed by a feud with the Queen’s lady-in-waiting (Imelda Staunton), who just happens to be a Crawley cousin. The family is as benignly far from dazzled by the power of the throne as the servant class is in awe of it, and the below-stairs plotlines through the film tend to focus on how unfair it is that the servants are to be deprived the opportunity to wait on royalty (the King and Queen, you see, travel with their own cooks and footmen). 

This injustice finds itself resolved through a heist-like scheme that feels strangely unworthy of a franchise whose past deviations from credibility tended to move in the direction of soapy dramatics and not loopy comedy. But it is, at least, a throughline. Juggling many characters, all of whom have been through many years of melodrama, director Michael Engler — who previously helmed episodes of the series — won’t or can’t invest real time into any one. As such, we glide over the surface of, say, Edith (Laura Carmichael), who on television had been a slow-burning surprise, the unlucky Crawley sister who discovered independence before love. Here, her storyline is that she has a disagreement with her husband that they work to figure out. The servants almost to a one share the story of trying to meet the queen; an exception is the ever-thwarted gay servant Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), who gets a romance that’s both warming and so unstintingly syrupy a plotline for one of the show’s most cynical characters that it’s hard to take seriously.

As a series, “Downton Abbey” sprawled, giving viewers the drama and chaos they wanted before a season-ending resolution of conflicts. Here, there’s only time for the resolutions, even before the drama happens. So much of this film’s diffuse plot works this way, explicitly granting characters whatever had been their wish with only the most perfunctory of obstacles in their paths, that the greatest impression is left by the battle that’s hardest-won, on the part of the servants to help the royals. The undistinguished direction has the ironic effect of bringing the royals down to earth — little about their visit seems special or unique — but the script pushes back, hard. 

The inhabitants of Downton Abbey have no real take on the monarchy other than that it is exciting and fun, just as they tend to think of their employers in glowingly positive terms. The Crawley’s Irish son-in-law (Allen Leech), a former family employee who believes in the Republican cause, remains silent on the matter out of respect for the family, while a ditzy scullery maid (Sophie McShera) makes anti-monarchist noises before abandoning the cause, as if to prove the case that dubiousness about the nation’s unelected ruling class, rather than dignified silence, is strictly for dilletantes. For their parts, the King and Queen are pleasantly empty, with the dramatic heavy lifting going to their daughter Princess Mary (Kate Phillips), who at one point tells her parents that she values the crown more than her own happiness. The dutifulness, from those who putatively serve the nation and those who literally serve them, is so thick in the air that it grows hard to make out a single free-willed character — which stops the drama dead in its tracks. 

“Downton Abbey” makes an interesting comparison piece not merely with its source TV show — which, though every bit as uncritical in its depiction of a historical moment, was vastly richer on a character and plot level and a bit less conservatively shot, too — but with “Gosford Park.” That 2001 film was also written by Fellowes, the Cambridge-educated son of a diplomat, but, whether thanks to the input of director Robert Altman or Fellowes’s ability to surf the tides of culture as it changed, was vastly more ironic and cynical about the vapidity of the elite. 

In both films, Maggie Smith plays a basically idle woman dependent on inheritances and allowances to stay afloat; in only one of them is her situation portrayed as outright heroic rather than somewhat pathetic, and is she given an eleventh-hour speech to the effect that cultural evolution is to be expected, but family continuity remains an important core value. Elsewhere in “Downton Abbey,” her feud with her cousin reaches rancorous heights due to that cousin’s decision to leave her fortune to her maid rather than her distant Crawley relations. The question of why the Crawleys would be entitled to an estranged relative’s money rather than lucky and grateful to get it is evidently beneath the film.

A film based on a show as beloved as “Downton Abbey” would have to do a lot wrong to alienate its core fans. While this attempt cannot juggle all its characters and isn’t nimble enough to find a new way to make its story work, this feature does not err quite that much. It’s reminiscent in this way of the 2008 film “Sex and the City,” which was strangely, lumpily paced and told a basically unnecessary story, but which was still true enough to its characters that it was embraced by fans. Those who love the Crawleys will find things to love here, from Mary’s insouciance, unchanged by the years, to the pleasant coziness of moments in the village surrounding Downton Abbey. But for some viewers who watched the show with an increasing sense of its fundamental coolness towards the idea of progress, its creepy-Crawley sense that to hope for or work for a more equitable world was not to know one’s role, this journey to the past may end up feeling ultimately less nostalgic than backward-looking.

Film Review: ‘Downton Abbey’

Reviewed at Digital Arts Screening Room, New York, Aug. 28, 2019. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 122 MIN.

  • Production: <div>A Focus Features release and presentation, in association with Perfect World pictures of a Carnival Films production. Producers: Gareth Neame, Julian Fellowes, Liz Trubridge. Executive producers: Nigel Marchant, Brian Percival. Co-producer: Mark Hubbard.</div>
  • Crew: Director: Michael Engler. Screenplay: Julian Fellowes, based on the television series created by Julian Fellowes and produced by Carnival Films. Camera (color): Ben Smithard. Editor: Mark Day. Music: John Lunn.
  • With: <div> <div>Hugh Bonneville, Jim Carter, Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Penelope Wilton, Laura Carmichael, Joanne Froggatt.</div> </div>