Downton Abbey may not have the stakes one normally expects from a major motion picture, but it’s confident in the knowledge that all audiences really want is the comfort of something warm and familiar. And in that regard, it unequivocally succeeds, the establishing shots of the Abbey a satisfying return to well-trod grounds.
In a lot of ways, it feels like a better send-off to the show than the final season did. Characters who seemed as though the writers didn’t quite know what to do with them (not to name any names, but we all see you, Tom) are back in proper form. And really, perhaps the smartest thing they could have done was to treat this as just an extra-long episode rather than trying to cram feature film stakes into a show that, however soapy, has always tended to be more quiet and dignified.
Downton Abbey picks up a handful of years after the series ended — it’s now the late 1920s, and despite the wild and frenetic decade they’re in, things have carried on much as they were before. Carson has retired as butler, the children are a bit older, Daisy and Andy are now engaged, and Mary’s deeply concerned about the battles ahead in preserving Downton Abbey, but there’s a comforting sameness to the old house that has stood like a stubborn rock against a sea of rapid 20th century change.
So it’s interesting that the overarching plot development is steeped in the celebration of a monarchy whose way of life was more and more out of touch with the people, even amongst the aristocracy. Downton Abbey may be a strong, steady presence in the community, but it has changed beyond recognition within one single generation, and with each passing year it becomes more and more exhausting to keep up with the old ways. When King George V and Queen Mary invite themselves to stay at Downton for the weekend (the cheek!) it’s an honor, but also a not insignificant challenge.
And as we’ve seen so many times before, the honor of Downton matters most to those who serve it. The royal household is large and unwieldy, the maneuvering of which resembles the movement of battalions in the field of war. The king and queen do things in a very specific way, so for them it makes more sense to bring an entire household staff with them wherever they go rather than expecting local servants to adapt. But of course, the staff at Downton consider being told to step aside the gravest of insults. Where most workers would put their feet up and enjoy a nice paid holiday, they engage in a bit of downstairs hijinks to be allowed to stay at their posts.
If there’s a criticism to be made about this new film, it’s in the treatment of the downstairs cast. There’s clearly been given a significant amount of thought on how to move the upstairs characters forward and, in some cases, repair damage from sloppy writing during the last season of the show. But for the large ensemble cast of footmen and valets and maids, little effort has gone into developing their roles, and it feels as though the writing has fallen back on mere caricatures of their roles from the series.
It seems somehow disingenuous to have them parroting the same lines as ever, when the Crawley family is given room to grow and develop as people. They’re presented as comfortable, familiar automatons unable to change despite the fact that as people in service they would have experienced a more dramatic shift in their day to day life than anyone else. Only the perennially unlucky Thomas, after being pushed to the side as butler and arrested for attending a secret gay club, is allowed to be an actual human.
Downton Abbey is not without its flaws, and even ardent fans will likely have things they wished were handled differently. If they don’t end up making another film or series in ten or so years depicting the next generation of Crawleys on the eve of World War II, everyone is bound to be disappointed. But on the whole, this is a respectable, largely satisfying resolution to a show that charmed audiences for years.
Directed by: Michael Engler
Written by: Julian Fellowes
Cast: Tuppence Middleton, Matthew Goode, Maggie Smith, Michelle Dockery, Kate Phillips, Elizabeth McGovern, Allen Leech, Robert James-Collier, Jim Carter