An English drama of manners, ripe with enough scandal to knock your Bobby Hat off, usually only appeals to the art house crowd in the U.S., but Downton Abbey could be different.
The hit TV show of the same name that inspired this film aired for six seasons on PBS. Devotees of the show will be eager to see the big-screen continuation of the saga, which picks up a little more than a year after the events of the series left off. Thus finding enough of an audience to recoup its presumably modest budget (and then some) should not be its challenge.
The question is: Does the movie have appeal to those (like this reviewer) who’ve never seen an episode of the show? A great movie would create a desire to seek out all six seasons as soon as possible. That is not happening.
However, the movie is good enough to warrant a look from those who’ve heard the hype but never partook in the saga. The film grows on you as it goes, and ultimately you care about the protagonists, and root for them.
Given that Downton virgins will feel like a stranger at a family reunion as the film commences, this is impressive. (If you’d like a taste of the series prior to seeing the movie, and/or could use a recap, Vanity Fair published a handy refresher on YouTube – visit vanityfair.com to find it and get up to speed.)
Driving the narrative written by Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) is the visit of King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) to the sprawling Crawley estate in Yorkshire, England, in 1927.
So there’s a plethora of story lines upstairs with the Crawley family – how could there not be with the royal family on hand – and downstairs with the wait staff.
Among them: The overseers of the estate, Robert (Hugh Bonneville), Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), and their daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery), ask the retired Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) to return as head butler when Barrow (Robert James-Collier) isn’t getting the job done; widower Tom Branson (Allen Leech) is involved in a plot to assassinate the king; Robert’s mother, Violet (Maggie Smith), hates the queen’s lady-in-waiting, Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), due to an inheritance dispute; footman Andy (Michael C. Fox) gets jealous when his fiancée, a maid named Daisy (Sophie McShera), flirts with a plumber (James Cartwright); the royal staff makes the Crawley staff miserable, so head housekeeper Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and lead valet Bates (Brendan Coyle) plot revenge.
And so on.
The manners, traditions and customs of Downton Abbey are unique yet quirky, different yet relatable. The production and costume designs feel period-accurate, while the social mores depict how far we’ve come while simultaneously reminding us how far we have to go. Fellowes, who also created the TV show, and director Michael Engler surely do this intentionally, but it’s subtle enough to not pander.
With a return to television unlikely, Downton Abbey fans should be dragging their friends, loved ones and enemies to see the movie. As we know, the more money it makes, the more likely a sequel becomes.
The film may not inspire the unfamiliar to check out the series, but it’s worthy of a moderate recommendation because it’s equal parts charming, amusing and dramatic.
Downton Abbey ( 2½ ) Directed by Michael Engler • Starring Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Penelope Wilton, Matthew Goode, Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery, Kevin Doyle • Rated PG • 122 min. • At Century Cinemas Del Monte, Century Marina, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas, Lighthouse Cinemas