The king and queen are coming to Downton Abbey, and everyone is in a tizzy – the Crawley clan upstairs and the loyal household staff downstairs. The stage is set for a return to one of PBS’s most popular shows, and fans will not be disappointed. Those who did not follow the series may be confused since creator and writer Julian Fellowes makes no attempt to fill in anyone’s backstory. Not to worry, though. There’s enough eye candy in the film to keep even out-of-the-loop viewers entertained.
We’re still in the 1920s, 1927 to be specific, and the message that the royals will visit comes in a letter from Buckingham Palace. As John Lunn’s familiar theme music fills the theater, we follow the letter’s journey, from the halls of the palace, on a train billowing steam, in the care of a messenger who delivers it to a member of the Downton staff, and finally placed into the hand of Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville). Over breakfast, he announces the news to his daughter, Mary (Michelle Dockery), who is thrilled, and his widower son-in-law, Tom Branson (Allen Leech), whose enthusiasm is tempered by his Irish roots. Soon the news spreads downstairs and the staff is on cloud nine with the prospect of serving the king and queen. The cook’s assistant, Daisy (Sophie McShera), an anti-royal, is the lone dissenter.
The earl’s mother, Lady Violet Crawley (Dame Maggie Smith), who has seen it all in her 80-plus years, is more focused on who will be accompanying the queen – her lady in waiting, Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), a Crawley cousin estranged from the family over an inheritance dispute. Robert, Mary, and Lady Violet’s sometime friend and frequent conscience, Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton), advise the dowager not to ruin the visit by getting into a battle with Maud. Wild horses, of course, will not stop Violet from finding out what’s behind Maud’s decision to disinherit her son Robert, one of several mysteries in the film that will be solved satisfactorily, even for Violet.
Carson (Jim Carter), now married to Downton’s housekeeper (Phyllis Logan), retired as the head butler because of palsy. Mary, worried that Carson’s replacement, Thomas (Robert James-Collier), is not up to the challenge of managing a royal visit, urges Carson to return. When the royal staff begins to arrive, however, it becomes clear that the Downton staff will be furloughed during the visit. Even head cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) will only be cooking for the servants, not the king and queen. (Members of the king’s staff, including Head Chef Courbet (Philippe Spall), Mrs. Webb, the head housekeeper (Richenda Carey) and the head butler (David Haig) are condescending and snobby, even refusing to use the servant’s entrance when they arrive.) Since word has spread like wildfire through the village that Downton will be hosting the royals, sidelining its competent staff is humiliating enough to force a rebellion. Led by lady’s maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and her husband (Brendan Coyle), the earl’s valet, the staff plots to take back the castle.
Director Michael Engler gives all the favorites a chance to shine. Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), now married to Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton), has found her voice, whether dealing with her husband or sister, Mary. The earl’s American wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), is allowed to voice excitement over hosting King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James). But no one can match the royal mania exhibited by footman Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle), who left Downton to take a teaching job, but comes back into service for the visit.
Tom Branson, once the family’s chauffeur, moved upstairs after his marriage to Lady Sybil, Grantham’s youngest daughter, who died in childbirth. He’s smitten with Maud’s maid, Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton), and even Violet finds herself, for her own reasons, cheering on such a romance.
As she did in the series, Dame Maggie Smith dominates every scene she’s in. She gets all the best lines, and her exchanges with Wilton’s Isobel are priceless. (I won’t reveal them here; they deserve to be experienced fresh.)
Cinematography by Ben Smithard is splendid, and the production design (Donal Woods) and costumes (Anna Mary Scott Robbins) provide many opportunities for filling the screen with glorious scenery, sumptuous rooms, and elegant gowns and jewelry that were a hallmark of the original series. Drones are put to good use, with wonderful overhead shots of the 300-room Highclere Castle that has long served as Downton’s location. (The popularity of the series and now, one assumes, the film, has increased the number of visitors to the castle and has provided a financial lifeline to the current owners, Lord and Lady Carnarvon, who continue to maintain the building and grounds.)
For diehard fans, one film will hardly satisfy their appetite for more of the Crawley’s adventures. Several story lines are left dangling so there’s hope that we haven’t seen the last of Downton Abbey.
Top: Jim Carter as Charles Carson in Downton Abbey, a Focus Features release. Credit: Jaap Buitendijk / Focus Features