Julian Fellowes’ long-running PBS period soap opera had, one might recall, a flamboyant finale, but apparently that was not enough for him. Now fans are treated to a big-screen addendum, which you might call a stand-alone affair were it not for the fact that the narrative pretty much presumes acquaintance with, and affection for, the small army of characters who are shoehorned into the story—so many that it’s hard to imagine anyone without at least a fleeting recollection of the series enjoying “Downton Abbey” much, except for its sumptuous costumes and sets (Daniel Woods was production designer and Anna Robbins the costumer) and the luscious widescreen cinematography by Ben Smithard, all smothered in John Lunn’s swooning score. Those who were addicted to the “Upstairs, Downstairs”-style dramatics of the program will, however, undoubtedly appreciate being invited anew to the old place and finding it chock-full of incident.
The occasion for all the activity is an announcement that as part of a tour of Yorkshire in 1927, King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) will drop by Downton for dinner before proceeding to Harewood House for a ball with their daughter Princess Mary (Kate Phillips) and her husband Lord Lascelles (Andrew Havill). The aristocratic Crawleys—Robert (Hugh Bonneville) and his American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern)—are none too impressed, being members of high society themselves, and their imperious daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery) is annoyed at having to take charge of the event, but the servants are thrown into an absolute tizzy at the thought of seeing to the needs of royalty.
They are to be disappointed, however, as they will be shunted to the side, as the snooty royal staff will take over the household duties for the duration. That comes as a special insult to retired butler Carson (Jim Carter), whom Mary has called upon to resume his duties—a change that so distresses his replacement Barrow (Robert James-Collier) that he announces he’s taking a vacation. The treatment of the staff leads to a plot devised by Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) and his wife, lady’s maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt), to send the royal staff packing and have the Downton stalwarts resume their old duties surreptitiously.
There’s also the problem caused by the presence in the royal entourage of Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), the queen’s lady-in-waiting. She’s a cousin of Robert’s, but is considered a turncoat to the family by the Earl’s redoubtable mother, the Dowager Countess Violet (Maggie Smith), because Maud refuses to bequeath her lands to Robert, instead preferring that her heir be her maid Lucy (Tuppence Middleton). Fortunately, Isobel, Lady Merton (Penelope Wilton), will divine the rationale behind Maud’s decision and help heal the wound—something made easier by the friendship that quickly develops between Lucy and widower Tom Branson (Allen Leech), the onetime Crawley chauffeur who became Robert’s son-in-law. Tom’s also involved in helping Princess Mary overcome her marital issues, and as an Irish nationalist comes under the scrutiny of the mysterious Major Chetwode (Stephen Campbell Moore), who might be a royal intelligence agent—or something else.
These are but some of the plot threads woven into Fellowes’ script. The other Crawley daughter, Edith (Laura Carmichael) is overjoyed by one family revelation but distraught when her husband Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton) is singled out to join the Prince of Wales on a foreign trip. Barrow gets caught up in a police raid on a York gay club, only to be rescued by an unlikely new friend (a subplot that seems, quite frankly, a way of pandering to modern sensibilities). Outspoken kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera) must reach a decision about a possible marriage to jealous footman Andy Parker (Michael C. Fox). Royal obsessive Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle), returned temporarily to the Downton staff under cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nichol), makes a terrible faux pas when serving the royal dinner.
All of which merely scratches the surface of all the goings-on at Downton and the adjoining village during the royal visit. But there is nonetheless an overarching theme to the details: the preservation of tradition. Will Downton survive? That’s the question on the mind of Lady Mary, who shoulders most of the burden of keeping the place afloat. She wonders whether it’s worth all the effort, a question that’s resolved only at the very end, when the Dowager Countess, in what can only be described as a valedictory moment, reminds her of her duty.
Of course, the larger question that the film never raises, any more than the series did, is whether Downton should survive. The perspective Fellowes has always taken, in the series and now here, is an extremely insular one. To be sure, there have been occasional implications of progressivism in the Downton story—in Branson’s rise to acceptance in the family, or Daisy’s egalitarian outbursts here. But generally speaking, there has never been any serious questioning of the rightness of the Crawley’s posh, privileged position—nor of the servants’ unquestioning loyalty to their masters, whether immediate (the Crawleys) or more distant (the crown).
The lack of any recognition of change in the wider world is especially pointed for anyone even vaguely knowledgeable of British history at the point Fellowes has chosen for his screenplay. In the year preceding the royal visit to Downton, the UK had witnessed the General Strike, an event that goes unmentioned, and the 1920s also saw the rise of the Labour Party.
The class-based socio-political structure of the UK was in decline as well. George V was really the first king to accept the role of a constitutional monarch, and accepted the passage of the 1911 Parliament Bill sharply reducing the power of the House of Lords. (He also changed the name of the dynasty to Windsor in response to public opinion.) The post-war economic circumstances were dire as well.
Except for Downton’s financial problems, none of this really impinges on Fellowes’ narrative, or on the obliviousness of the ruling class to the changes occurring around them. Instead we are shown that the king and queen, despite the pomp and circumstance that surrounds their lives, are in the end pretty nice folk (note Mary’s easygoing reply to the crestfallen Molesley, and George’s treatment of Edith’s concerns). As for Princess Mary, she’s just your typical unhappy housewife—except that she gets to wear a crown and has a retinue to wipe away her tears. The real snobs and even villains here are, with one signal exception, the royal servants, a smug and unreliable bunch.
Still, fans of “Downton Abbey” don’t want any hint of serious social consciousness—they’re looking for the opulence and ingrained sense of entitlement among the swells that marked the series, and under Michael Engler’s workmanlike direction that’s what is offered plentifully here (it’s the same impulse that explains many Americans’ fascination with the royals even in their present, often less-than-admirable, state). Surely the perfect embodiment of the combination of serene haughtiness and verbal brilliance they crave is Smith’s Dowager Countess, whom Fellowes gives a stream of one-liners that don’t match Oscar Wilde’s, but not for lack of trying. No one else in the cast comes close to matching Smith—if this is her swan song in the role, it’s a fine sendoff—but all the actors from the series fit snugly into their roles, as might be expected. Among the newcomers Staunton makes an especially good addition.
Like the series, the feature of “Downton Abbey” will never be accused of depth—except, perhaps, in terms of the pile of jewelry in our ladies’ dresser-top boxes—but it will provide fans with another opportunity to wallow in the extravagant, though melodramatically troubled, lifestyle of the pampered elite of between-the-wars Britain, and of the servants who were mindlessly devoted to doing the pampering.