Downton Abbey, that lavish soap opera masquerading as a historical period drama, returns four years after its final episode for its first crack at the big screen. Picking up the story two years on, all of the characters resume from where the TV show left them.
The Crawley family and their employees at Downton Abbey are preparing for a royal visit by King George and Queen Mary. However, their excitement is quickly quashed by the realisation that the royal entourage includes exclusive servants, leaving their services rendered for the event.
This, of course, throws the Abbey into turmoil and the scheming begins. Throw a budding romance into the mix, along with a royal scandal and an odd contemporary social commentary, and we’re offered up what amounts to a double-episode special event broadcast that needn’t have left the small-screen at all.
Fans will be ecstatic for this feature-length return of their favourite show, and will enjoy revisiting with the characters they’ve come to love. But they shouldn’t expect any further developments or depth in this continuation, because there isn’t any. The story of the royal arrival adds no gravitas to the well-established narrative, nor does it explore the various characters beyond their routine marker-points.
Newcomers will arrive to the film with a lack of backstory and context, and the series’ creator and screenwriter Julian Fellowes makes no accommodation for those unfamiliar with the show; tenderfoot viewers are forced to join the dots. This matters little to the overall narrative of the film, although it does affect the character dynamics and interplay.
After six seasons on TV, the cast is obviously very comfortable in their established roles. Maggie Smith is the clear standout, offering more devilish quips and a meddlesome cheekiness that made her Dowager Countess so beloved. Penelope Wilton is also a delight, as is most of the returning cast. Some are given very little screen time, while others enjoy what little amount of character building the screenplay allows. Newcomers to the ensemble include Imelda Staunton, Geraldine James and David Haig, who fit in nicely, albeit without much substance.
Downton Abbey is an enjoyable extension of the television series that serves purely as a service to fans. With fleeting moments of progressive themes and signs of changing times, the film misses many opportunities to expand upon the foundations on which it rests, which is a shame. Newcomers should instead take advantage of Fellowes’ new upcoming series, The Gilded Age, and engage it from the get go, rather than backtracking through six seasons of Downton just for the sake of context.
In cinemas: September 12, 2019
Starring: Matthew Goode, Maggie Smith, Michelle Dockery
Directed by: Michael Engler