Downton Abbey is what I’d call a “prestige soap.” Equal parts decadent and reserved, the show took the Upstairs, Downstairs concept and “modernized it” in the early 2010s; running with it, creating a worldwide phenomenon lasting six seasons. Surprisingly, the move to the big screen hasn’t resulted in any sort of compromise or sacrifice in quality. This is the same house, the same family you know and love, partially unvarnished.
With approximately 50,000 storylines (that’s accurate enough) going on with individual family members and carrying over, it can be tough to keep up with everyone, but the feature film does a decent job of getting folks up to speed. In short, the narrative deals with a well-to-do family who owns an estate that’s slowly declining in prestige, as well as the “help” downstairs that makes it all happen. Naturally, a big film needs big stakes, so this time the royal family is visiting and everything needs to be shipshape. While most of the cast returns (including the creatives behind it), some aren’t present: for practical (they’re fictionally dead) or impractical (scheduling) reasons.
But for all intents and purposes, this is 99% the spirit of Downton Abbey resurrected, four years after the show has been off the air. It’s a blessing for the cast and crew that they didn’t wait too long, as most of them haven’t lost a step. Maggie Smith is just as cutting as ever as Violet Crawley, Sophie McShera is once again a likable and relatable standout, and Hugh Bonneville is a master at subdued, dry comedy. As a series fan it was also nice to see classic characters like former head butler Mr. Carson makes a triumphant return (he’s basically called out of retirement to help with the festivities) and interact with the gang again.
Of course, it can’t just be a dinner party. There’s plenty of family drama, some high drama (an assassin is in the mix!), and heaps of misunderstandings and in-fighting between the house staff and the queen’s retinue. It can be hard to follow, especially once we’re off to the races and things really take off 30 minutes in, but for the most part, the events are encapsulated in the film itself or explained (not overly so) to its benefit.
As usual, the downstairs crew does a lot of the heavy lifting, injecting levity when things get too somber, but this is mostly lighter fare. The wonderful and whimsical soundtrack is not only fitting but relaxing, and there’s a certain majesty to the wide shots and natural beauty of the film. The script has that tactful rapier wit to it, though it does feel overly long at two hours as a result of some meandering subplots. Downton Abbey was a top-shelf period showcase, and the film carries on that legacy. It’s a nice little wrap-up for most of the cast and a great sendoff for a series that delighted fans for over half a decade. It deserves its place in pop culture history and thankfully avoided the TV-to-film quality curse.