Usually, when a TV show gets turned into a feature film, the dramatic stakes are raised for the big screen. Carrie Bradshaw married Mr. Big in the “Sex and the City” movie, Scully and Mulder found aliens in Antarctica in the “X-Files” movie, and the “Firefly” crew uncovered a galaxy-wide conspiracy in “Serenity.”
But, if anything, the stakes are lowered in the new “Downton Abbey” movie. No world wars, no pandemics, no shocking death that leaves an adorable baby orphaned. Instead, the movie takes place over a very eventful weekend at everyone’s favorite Yorkshire manse.
That, I suspect, is just the way that fans of the wildly popular PBS series want it, four years after the show gracefully left the airwaves. Written by show creator Julian Fellowes and directed by longtime TV veteran Michael Engler, watching the movie is like sharing a pot of Earl Grey with people you’ve known for years.
For the uninitiated, the year is 1927, and we’re peeking into the lives of the people living at Downton Abbey, both the aristocratic Crawley family and their coterie of loyal servants. The Abbey itself is really the star of the show, and Engler saves his most ambitious shots for the castle, the camera swirling around to catch every angle of the gorgeous edifice.
Inside, everyone is abuzz because King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) will be staying at Downton Abbey for the weekend during a tour of Yorkshire. Nervous that her new butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) won’t be quite up to the task of preparing a royal welcome, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) implores Barrow’s predecessor, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), to resume his old duties for the weekend.
This leads to something of a power struggle between the butlers, as Barrow takes Lady Mary’s decision as an insult to his abilities. But that’s nothing compared to the power struggle that erupts when the royal servants — cooks, maids, footmen — arrive to prepare Downtown Abbey for the royals, and tell the in-house servants to essentially take a hike.
Chuffed, the staff plots to show that Downton Abbey’s level of service is every bit as good as what the royals are used to. There’s a gentle irony here in the class struggle going on among the servants, all jockeying to see who can get the privilege of serving the royals.
Upstairs, everyone has their own problems to deal with. Tom Branson (Allen Leech), the ex-chauffeur who now runs the household, is being shadowed by a British official who apparently thinks the Irish Tom will try some kind of mischief during the King and Queen’s visit. And the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) is clashing with a cousin, Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) who is part of the royal entourage, and has control of her family’s inheritance. Only Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) don’t have some kind of issue to deal with. Maybe after five years of the TV show they’re feeling semi-retired.
“Downton Abbey” is paced more like a supersized TV episode than a movie — there’s no big climax at the end, just a series of conversations in rooms as revelations are uncovered, misunderstandings resolved, relationships strengthened. Fellowes’ screenplay does a remarkable balancing act making sure that nearly every character, large or small, gets a moment to shine. But he might have been better off trimming a few of the subplots and giving the film more focus.
Particularly affecting is the storyline of Barrow, a one-time villain on the show who has evolved into one of its most nuanced characters, a closeted gay man in an England where homosexuality is a felony. Smith also adds a few more shadings to the Countess as she tries to secure the future of her family, although fear not — she still has plenty of time to trade acid-dipped one-liners with her foil Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton).
The future of “Downton Abbey” at least, seems secure, and I’m confident that fans will get another chance to visit the mansion again, whether in another movie, a miniseries or some other form. Fellowes’ affection for this household is palpable, and infectious.