Downton Abbey is arguably the best episodic television drama in history. If screen entertainment were an exact science, that would make the new film version the greatest movie ever. It would also make the 2012 cinematic adaptation of Les Miserables a masterpiece. And we all know how that turned out.
Alas, cinema is not a science but an unpredictable art. And great TV shows, like brilliant stage musicals, don't always make wonderful films. That's not to say the new Downton Abbey movie, written by series creator Julian Fellowes and helmed by four-time series-episode director Michael Engler, is either wholly disappointing or unnecessary. It's neither. It's simply a charming, if contrived, extra narrative chapter that will please most loyalists but mean little to viewers unfamiliar with the upstairs-downstairs world of the Crawley family and those who serve them.
From 2010 to 2015, the series bewitched millions on both sides of the Atlantic – on ITV in England and PBS in America. Employing rich characterizations, sumptuous production values and engaging storytelling, it touched the hearts of both native Britons and Anglophiles everywhere. For many fans, it transcended television to embody Britain itself or, more precisely, a Britain remembered now only by centenarians.
The good news is the film conjures many of the same feelings as the show. And considering it has been more than three years since we've been through the doors of Downton, merely being back will be enough for some audience members. But the movie could have been more than an extension of the series, and a rather forced one, at that. It could have added depth to the characters, challenged our notions of the post-Edwardian period and produced that same aesthetic giddiness we experienced in Season One. It could also have given those unfamiliar with the TV show a reason to watch. It has done none of this.
The plot revolves around a visit by King George V and Queen Mary. It's the summer of 1927 (two years after the events of season six), and their majesties plan to pay their respects to the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), the Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) and the rest of the family while on a tour of Yorkshire. Predictably, this throws the household into a tizzy, necessitating the Herculean efforts of the staff and the return of Charles Carson (Jim Carter), the former butler.
But the royal pop-in is just pretext. The real narrative meal – and there are many frenetic courses – concerns the goings-on (mostly romantic) of the beloved characters, especially Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) and Tom Branson (Allen Leech), whose lives were left somewhat unfulfilled at the end of the series. Almost all the other characters – including new ones – get subplots of their own as well, courtesy of Fellowes' prodigious brain. It's a mind that served him well in the series but apparently isn't quite as well suited to the big screen, despite previous success with The Young Victoria and Gosford Park.
When hearing of the royal visit, the cook, Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), remarks, "He's the king of England. There's only one of them." Similarly, there's only one Downton Abbey, and despite the tube-to-cinema stumbles, it's a pleasure to be invited into its world once again.
– This story is from the Sept. 18, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.