Film & Television

‘Downton Abbey’: Nothing Succeeds Like Excess

The final episode of Downton Abbey aired in the U.S. on March 6, 2016. A record-setting 9.6 million viewers tuned in to bid farewell to a family they had come to know and love as their own — even if most of us didn’t have a title, dress for dinner, or live in an enormous country manor. 

It’s been more than three years, and it’s difficult to pinpoint what we’ve all missed most. The grandeur of Highclere Castle (a.k.a. Downton Abbey)? Lady Mary’s glamorous wardrobe? The illegitimate babies — above and below stairs? Six seasons of lovelorn “Poor Edith”? Branson’s republican ideals? Mr. and Mrs. Bates’s seemingly endless brushes with the law? The Dowager Countess’s biting one-liners? Thomas’s transformation from resident villain to sympathetic outsider? Moseley’s inebriated highland fling? The pomp? The circumstance? Or the delicious combination that made what was essentially a period soap opera into a most welcome escape from the comparatively drab and dreary everyday?

If you were among the millions of fans who suffered Downton withdrawal, by all means get thee to your local cinema this weekend for all of the above, and then some. 

Downton Abbey, the movie, is bigger, if not exactly better, than ever.

As the film begins, we’re immediately reminded of Downton‘s earliest season. Back then, an important message was being sent to the Crawley family: news that the Titanic had sunk and that Downton’s heir (and Mary’s assumed fiancé) was among the missing and presumed dead. This time, a message is sent from Buckingham Palace, with happier news for the family. King George V and Queen Mary (the current Queen Elizabeth’s grandparents) are coming to Downton. “This won’t help us economize,” admits Lord Grantham. 

Even as we find ourselves in familiar territory (the well-heeled family gathered round the well-appointed dining room table, discussing the estate’s expenses), we’re also put on notice to expect an even grander experience than we’ve had before. The first shots of the Abbey are breathtaking (some of the audience members at the preview showing I attended actually clapped when it appeared). Working with a more generous budget, the scale of everything — from drone shots of Highclere and the surrounding countryside, to bejeweled tiaras and ball gowns, to feasts fit for, well obviously, a King and a Queen — has been raised several notches.

Most of Downton‘s beloved characters met happy endings when the series ended. So, creator Julian Fellowes and his team had to develop new narratives for the movie. The impending royal visit, which Fellowes based on an actual event, sets the tone and provides a logical beginning, middle, and end to the film. It also opens the door to intrigue, romance, comedy, and a very enthusiastic appreciation for the monarchy.

Preparing a country home for such an occasion puts everyone on his mettle, above and below stairs. Lady Mary, who has virtually taken over as head of the household, turns to her trusted stalwart Mr. Carson when she fears that the current butler, Mr. Barrow, is in over his head. (Carson’s palsy, the reason he retired at the end of season six, seems to have miraculously disappeared. I suppose a royal visit will do that kind of thing.) Level-headed housekeeper Mrs. Hughes warns the staff that the house has to gleam and shine. (Of course, I don’t recall its ever being particularly dull or dusty.) Mrs. Patmore and Daisy, who is engaged, a bit reluctantly, to footman Andy, plan elaborate meals. Lady Edith, now the Marchioness of Hexham, agrees to leave all her duties and come to Downton for the event. Former Irish rebel Branson plans to support the family and keep his more radical ideas to himself. Anna and John Bates, now with a baby of their own in the Downton nursery, seem thrilled, but not as thrilled as Mr. Moseley, who takes a leave of absence from his teaching job in order to put his livery back on and wait giddily upon his and her majesties. The only person who is as unflappable as ever is Lady Violet, the Dowager Countess. 

All is as it should be (and as we all anticipated). But that soon changes.


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