In 2015, after six seasons and a few Christmas specials, Downton Abbey came to an end, with Victoria subsequently replacing it as ITV’s big period drama. But of course, we have a real difficulty letting things go in this day and age – and so the original cast, writer Julian Fellowes, and the filming location of Highclere Castle have all been brought back for a feature film. So how is it?
Long story short: in every way, from the music to the cinematography to the scale, it’s a two-hour episode of the show. In fact, sometimes you could pinpoint the moments where the commercial breaks would probably have been if this were on TV. So whether you’ll enjoy the film depends very much on whether you enjoyed the show. I did, so I found the film to be a very pleasant experience and certainly worth the price of a cinema ticket. And if you’ve never watched the show but are seeing the film anyway for whatever reason, it’s not hard to grasp all the characters’ roles and relationships, and there’s enough of a good story to get some pleasure out of it, though obviously not as much as long-time fans.
The film takes place in 1927, a year or so after the show ended. Since we last saw them, not much has changed for the Crawley family and their diligent downstairs staff, except that the children are a little older. But then comes the announcement that the King and Queen are coming to stay at Downton Abbey during their tour of Yorkshire, and all the usual drama ensues: tricky social engagements, misunderstandings, romantic problems and a struggle to make sure that everything runs as smoothly as possible. As far as conflict goes, everything is kept relatively light; there’s certainly nothing on the scale of the show’s darker moments, like rape or death by childbirth or vomiting blood at the dinner table. And to be honest, I didn’t mind that; it’s nice to have something simple.
All the wit and charm from the show at its best is on offer here; there are some hilarious moments, many of them involving painfully awkward situations, and Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess is on top form as usual. The many different subplots are blended together well for the most part; I particularly liked watching how the servants deal with having their positions usurped by the royal staff, before finally mounting a surreptitious rebellion. It’s not perfect, however. The film does its best to handle such a large cast, but two hours isn’t enough to give everybody their due: Mr Bates, for instance, hardly has anything to do, and Thomas practically disappears in the second act before getting a tacked-on subplot in the third. Also, subtlety and unpredictability were never hallmarks of the show, and the film is no exception; the directions where each little story will go are clearly signposted. When a new character played by Tuppence Middleton appears on the scene, every indication is given that she’s meant as a love interest for one of the regulars; and when pointed references are made to things going missing around the house, it’s not hard to guess who is responsible.
Ultimately, the film adaptation of Downton Abbey is fluff – and very agreeable fluff it is too. While the ending does give enough closure to be satisfying, there’s still certainly room for a continuation if both the fans and the cast are up for it. Rating: 4/5.