Some sniffy critics have been arguing the Downton Abbey movie is nothing more than an extended Christmas special, but even if that’s the case, there’s nothing wrong with heading to the big screen to reunite with your favourite characters, or merely wallowing in some frothy nostalgia for a while.
Downton’s creator, Julian Fellowes, had always found the idea of the fully staffed country house fascinating, long before he wrote 2002’s Gosford Park, and the 2004 novel Snobs, which served as the inspiration for Downton Abbey. “There is something intriguing about a group of people living in such close proximity and yet with such different expectations,” explains Fellowes.
In Downton, he chose the often-overlooked Edwardian period as the backdrop and focused as much on the staff downstairs as the aristocracy above. It might have been a glossy version of history, and there was a certain soap opera melodrama to proceedings, but there was also whip-smart dialogue and sumptuous period details, and Downton became an unequivocal global hit. When the show ended in 2015, after six series, people were still hankering for more, even if Fellowes thought it had been put to bed. “We made sure all the characters were safely tucked up in their lives, said goodbye to them, but it seemed the public was not quite prepared to be parted and the rumours of a film grew. The team felt unable to resist them and so the film was born,” he says.
The movie opens to swelling music as we follow a handwritten letter from London to its intended destination, Downton Abbey, where the royal seal soon has everyone talking. Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) informs his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and family that King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) will be visiting Downton Abbey for one night during their Yorkshire tour. There’s a parade to organise and a dinner to arrange, which prompts flustered anticipation among most of the servants, but their excitement is cut short when staff members from the royal house descend in what resembles a coup.
Leading the takeover is the rather superior Mr Wilson (David Haig), who is not, he pompously informs the Downton staff, the Royal Butler, but the King’s Page of the Backstairs. His explanation of what will happen during the royal visit is exhaustive, but essentially the Downton staff are to stay out of the way. As tensions run high, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), who now oversees the running of the estate, asks retired butler Mr Carson (Jim Carter) to temporarily return to the fold. But even he grows fed-up with the outsiders’ supercilious attitude.
The backlash plan, concocted by lady’s maid Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt) and husband Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle), is undoubtedly the most farcical element of the movie, but no less enjoyable for it. The moment staunch royalist Mr Molesley (Kevin Doyle) is overcome with emotion in front of the king and queen is one of the film’s comedic highlights. There are plenty of laughs elsewhere, not least from the family’s matriarch, Violet Crawley, the Countess of Grantham, played by the ever-superb Dame Maggie Smith who spars with her exasperated friend Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton), as well as with the queen’s lady-in-waiting Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton). The two go way back it transpires, and there are historical quarrels to solve.
But everyone has their moment. As a former Irish republican, Tom Branson (Allen Leech) finds himself in a spot of bother during the royal visit, Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) is questioning her future when husband Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton) is offered a glittering opportunity overseas, and former bad boy-turned-butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) has a life-changing night out. Towards the end of the movie, the cameras pan away from a lavish ball to a quiet and poignant scene between Violet and Lady Mary. The eldest granddaughter is struggling with the demands of Downton during ever-changing times but finds answers when Violet shares some startling news that puts everything in perspective.
Fans of the show will delight in the familiar faces, the music and the sight of Highclere Castle, the gothic backdrop for Downton Abbey since day one, but Fellowes has ensured those who didn’t watch the series can enjoy the movie as a standalone story. Yes, the storyline might be a little silly at times but, like the series, it is pure escapism and this time the glamour has been heightened so there’s even more to savour, from the fabulous fashion and sets to the laugh-out-loud wit and the sort of tender moments that garnered a round of applause from appreciative fans during the preview screening. As Lady Mary might say, it’s all rather delightful, so maybe it’ll only be a matter of time before someone rings the bell for a sequel.
Downton Abbey is out now
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