The popular period drama tv series spanning six seasons is back. This time on the big screen, also written by its creator, Julian Fellowes. I’ve only watched the first two seasons in its entirety, then sporadically after that, enough to understand who’s who in the Crawley family. If you have never seen a single episode of the series, you might find this who’s-who featurette handy. WARNING: There are some mild spoilers here, so if you prefer to go in blind, proceed with caution.
As the trailer has promised us, the film once again takes place at the sprawling estate in the English countryside. It’s set in Highclere Castle, which has just been listed on Airbnb, conveniently announced the same week the film’s US release 😉 The film opens with the Crawleys receiving royal mail… which then sets the motion for the upstairs/downstairs drama of the family preparing for a visit by King George V and Queen Mary (which is inspired by true events you can read about here). I think it’s ingenious that Fellowes places the fictitious Crawley family and their servants in context of real life events, such as the Titanic, Britain’s general election, and now the Royal visit.
The movie could’ve easily been made into 2-3 one-hour episodes with dizzying number of storylines jam-packed into a 2-hour running time. My friend who went with me to the early screening counted at least 9-10 different plots as we drove home… some are completely frivolous, mixed with a few intriguing ones. I thought the feud between servants and the royal entourage is amusing, though borderline absurd at times. There are SO many characters who’re all vying to get our attention, given they barely get a few minutes in before the plot jumps to something else.
Of course Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham (the great Dame Maggie Smith) is my personal favorite from the series, and she’s got her share of fun, GIF-worthy snarky remarks in this movie as well. But of the male characters, widower Tom Branson (Allen Leech), the former driver who’s now part of the family, gets the most screen time here. First, there’s a mysterious military guy (Stephen Campbell Moore) who despite his seemingly-friendly encounter becomes increasingly suspicious that he has grand designs on the royal visit. There’s also [SPOILER ALERT!] a potential romance between him and Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton), the maid of Queen Mary’s lady-in-waiting (Imelda Staunton) who happens to be Robert’s estranged cousin. There’s apparently a falling out over some inheritance issue, which creates some hilarious shenanigans involving Violet and her ‘bestie’ Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton).
There’s no lack of drama downstairs either. I mentioned the feud between the servants and the arrogant royal entourage, which entangles practically every single one of the servants. Some of the shenanigans are quite hilarious, thanks to the over-eager Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) who could barely holds his excitement to serve the royals! As the power struggle went on in Downton, Thomas (Robert James-Collier) has a night on the town, which provides an opportunity for a LGBTQ commentary on the legal repercussions of being gay in 1920s England. Thomas is a tough character to love given his past shenanigans at Downton, but one can’t help feel for him here.
The one scene that stays with me the most is a chance encounter between Branson and Princess Mary, more so because he didn’t know of her identity at the time. I think Tom is one of the most sympathetic characters in the series– someone from humble beginnings who has to straddle both worlds. The chance encounter ends up having quite a profound effect on the Princess who’s going through some personal struggles, which we later learn in the film.
Besides Violet, Lady Mary is definitely a memorable character in her own right. Michelle Dockery portrays her perfectly as a wise, dutiful, often-conflicted who seems colder than she appears. There is a sweet, poignant scene between her and her beloved grandmother towards the end of the movie. I do appreciate that even for a film set in 1920s, the film shows plenty of strong women, both upstairs and downstairs, who are no shrinking violet [pun intended]. [SPOILER ALERT!] Speaking of Violet, think this might also be the last Downton movie we’d see her in, and Fellowes has carved her a graceful exit. One thing I’m definitely disappointed with is the lack of Mathew Goode, whose appearance is basically a cameo despite being listed so high on IMDb cast list!
Director Michael Engler (whose background is in stage directing) does his best juggling so many plot lines, but at times the movie feels jumpy and discombobulating to follow. There are a couple of mildly suspenseful moments, but mostly the movie is expectedly a tranquil affair. The visuals are gorgeous thanks to cinematographer Ben Smithard. And of course John Lunn‘s lush score is so iconic that even hearing a couple of notes of it immediately makes me want to return to Downton! The costumes and set design of the series have always been impeccable, and they turned them up a notch in this grand cinematic treatment. From the elegant dinners to the festive Royal parade through Downton Village, it would certainly make fans of the British royal family brimming with glee.
Overall it’s an entertaining movie if you’re into period dramas. Even with certain scenes some period drama fans might consider risqué, overall the movie plays it safe, aiming mostly for a feel-good vibe that won’t ruffle too much feathers. Fans of Downton would likely get the most enjoyment out of this movie, but casual moviegoers might still be entertained by the upstairs/downstairs shenanigans of British aristocrats.
Have you seen Downton Abbey movie? Let me know what you think!