Film & Television

‘Downton Abbey’: Nothing Succeeds Like Excess

Fellowes and director Michael Engler set the stage and then introduce all sorts of complications. Without giving away much of the — at times, almost ridiculously predictable — plotline, suffice it to say that before your two hours with the Crawleys are over, there will be an assassination attempt, a servants’ rebellion, a long-lost cousin with a secret, a blossoming romance, a ball gown lost in transit, a thief in the Abbey, a thwarted royal divorce, a raid on an illegal dance club, and at least a half dozen other subplots to keep track of. And whether you shake your head then and there at some of the absurdities or you bask in Downton‘s glow and only later realize how silly the entire thing was, you will enjoy every minute of it.

Nearly every cast member from the series’s later years is back and in fine form. (Missing are Lily James (Lady Rose) and the Dowager Countess’s comical servants Sue Johnston (Denker) and Jeremy Swift (Spratt).) And all seem to be having a marvelous time. Unfortunately, with so much plot and just under two hours to work with, we don’t get quite enough time for any of the characters. Mary (Michelle Dockery) is still imperious, Edith (Laura Carmichael) is still a bit whiney, Branson (Allen Leech) is still conflicted, Robert (Hugh Bonneville) still thinks he’s in charge, and Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) is still conspicuously American. There are some delightful exchanges between Violet (the grandest Grande Dame Maggie Smith) and her frenemy Isobel, now Baroness Merton (Penelope Wilton). In fact, if you cherished the stingers Smith served up on a regular basis in the television series, you’ll be happy to know that virtually every line she has in the movie (except for one truly heartfelt scene with Mary toward the end) lives up to or surpasses your expectations.

The servants stay true to their established characters as well. And, while there’s little room for new development, it’s great to spend time with them again. Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) and Daisy (Sophie McShera) are true partners now; at times Daisy leads and Mrs. Patmore follows. Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) gets to pronounce that things are “highly irregular.” Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) gently keeps him in his place. Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) is still supportive of the clownish Molesley (Kevin Doyle, whose royal missteps nearly steal the show). And things seem to have calmed down for Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and John Bates (Brendan Coyle) — at least neither of them is incarcerated. 

The fine cast also includes Downton newcomers Imelda Staunton (real-life wife of Jim Carter) as a Crawley cousin and lady-in-waiting, Tuppence Middleton as her maid, Simon Jones and Geraldine James as the kind and queen, and Kate Phillips as their daughter.

Costumes by Anna Robbins and hats by Sean Barrett are the stuff that period drama dreams are made of. Sumptuous is an understatement. Everything, as I’ve mentioned already, is brighter, shinier, and bigger than life. What are missing are the intimate details, the personal stories, and the character development that were always at the heart of Downton Abbey.

This has led some critics, here and in the U.K., to question whether the movie was even necessary. Once you look past all the trappings of aristocracy, there’s not a lot of there there. It’s frivolous fun, but executed so marvelously that you really don’t have much energy left to complain after you’ve finished ooh-ing and aah-ing. We’ve sorely missed the two dozen or so denizens of Downton. Having two hours with them (just as we remembered, but larger than life) feels as if Christmas has arrived three months early.

Because when all is said and done, for those of us who appreciate the finer things in life — or, at least on Masterpiece Classic — there is simply nothing that compares to Downton Abbey.

As Lady Violet once said, borrowing from another famous wit, Oscar Wilde, “Nothing succeeds like excess.”


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