The French poet Paul Valery once wrote that a work of art is never finished, merely abandoned. But in this era of perpetually churning reboots, remakes and spinoffs, nothing successful is ever left for long. Every story spawns its own multiverse that can be re-entered at will, providing there’s enough juice from those twin fuels for narrative time travel: financing and social media interest.
So the next foray into the Downton Abbey Universe (DAU) is Downton Abbey, a feature-length theatrical spinoff from the PBS series of the same name, which picks up the saga of the high-born British Crawley family and their (mostly) loyal servants in the year 1927 — about 15 years on from when the story started with the 1912 sinking of the Titanic.
Thanks to an infusion of financing, not unlike the way Cora’s dowry saved the family fortunes way back when, Downton 2.0 is literally bigger, broader, more gem-encrusted, punctuated with more drone shots and monarchist pomp, and has all the major castmembers back in place. Even those who made grumbling noises in the press about having had enough (*cough* Maggie Smith *cough*) when the sixth and supposedly final season wrapped have sucked it up and donned the corsets and waistcoats. Sadly, Dan Stevens’ much loved character Matthew Crawley, despite internet rumors, is still dead (although I for one am holding out hope there will be a Downton–Legion crossover someday).
That mashup may be many years off yet, but don’t be surprised if there are more films to come, especially since this satisfyingly dense deep dive into Downton-land is clearly getting the infrastructure ready to keep the story going. Sure, a few of the series’ regulars probably won’t come back, but without spoiling anything we can reveal that the last scenes are all about the old passing on the house keys of power to a younger generation.
Indeed, there are even enough shots and mentions by name of the children being raised by assorted nannies seemingly in the library to suggest that creator-screenwriter Julian Fellowes and producers Gareth Neame and Liz Trubridge are laying down track for storylines deep in the future. Maybe someday we will catch up with then elderly Sybbie, George and Marigold as they face brutal choices in the 1990s about whether to sign over Downton to the National Trust and live in the servants’ quarters while busloads of tourists troop through the Great Hall every day, or sell the whole gaff to a Russian oligarch, all the while coping with trust-fund-spoiled progeny addicted to drugs and with little to no interest in farming.
These crises and ones yet to be unconceived may lay ahead, but back in 1927 Downton Abbey the movie catches up with the household and its satellites at an exciting moment. A letter arrives from Buckingham Palace announcing that King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) will be coming to stay for a night on a tour of Yorkshire, before they visit their daughter Princess Mary (Kate Phillips) and her husband Lord Lascelles (Andrew Havill) at nearby Harewood House. There will also be a parade through the town and display of equestrian skill at the village green (a rather charmingly all-pageantry-no-plot sequence featuring real members of the current day’s King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery in full ceremonial dress).
The spreading of the news deftly allows for an introductory montage as each character is called by name and indirectly introduced so that total newcomers to the DAU can get a rough grip on who’s who. This entails a certain amount of stiffness as explicatory tidbits get dispensed, but for the most part the conversation feels fairly organic and there’s hardly any “remember that time a Turkish diplomat died in your bed, Lady Mary?” sort of explication.
As the silver gets polished and the carpets are beaten, several major subplots emerge. It’s a sufficiently knotty tangle of storylines that the film risks playing like a very fancy, extra-long stand-alone episode rather than a coherent, self-contained feature. The aforementioned Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), a woman ahead of her time and true heir apparent, is co-running the household and estate in partnership with her widowed brother-in-law Tom Branson (Allen Leech), while Mary’s somewhat gormless parents Robert (Hugh Bonneville) and Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) smile munificently from the sidelines. Seeing that Barrow the butler (Robert James-Collier), once the series heavy, now-redeemed, is struggling with the scale of the preparations, Mary makes an executive decision to bring back Carson (Jim Carter) from retirement, rather to Barrow’s chagrin.
However, the Downton staff have their own noses put out of joint when an advance posse of royal servants arrive and start issuing orders like they own the place. Worst of all, it appears that the royal staff will be the ones to serve the formal dinner when the King and Queen eat with the Crawleys. Even Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), Downton’s formidable cook, is to be knocked aside so that a French chef (Phillippe Spall) can take over the range.
Off to the side, representing the feelings of grumpy republicans everywhere, smarter-than-she-looks Daisy the kitchen maid (Sophie McShera) tuts over the absurdity of all this royal bootlicking and expresses generally anti-monarchist sentiments, perhaps auguring a future career as a union organizer.
Happy-at-last ladies’ maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt), meanwhile, should perhaps consider, especially given her experience with the justice system in the past, a future as an Agatha Christie-style roving detective considering how quickly she spots that someone in the royal entourage is stealing valuable Downton tchotchkes.
Upstairs, there’s just as much trouble and politicking afoot, only the suits are more expensive and the hats are far, far fancier. Shout out, by the way, to costume milliner Sean Barrett for devising perfectly character-reflecting headgear particularly to the grande dames of the ensemble, working in concert with the film and series’ most gifted offscreen artist, costume designer Anna Robbins. The frocks and finery department knock it out of the park here, exploiting the big screen’s ability to show even finer detail than could be seen on even the biggest home viewing system.
Near the top of the social order, the dowager Countess Violet (Smith) has a bee in her late-Victorian-style bonnet about the fact that distant relative Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), one of the queen’s ladies in waiting who will be visiting, has no obvious heir and therefore should be leaving her wealth to Violet’s son, Robert. But Maud seems to favor her own maid, Lucy (Tuppence Middleton), who strikes up a friendship with Tom Branson — who, thanks to his past Irish republican sympathies, is himself drawn into the shadows by the mysterious Major Chetwode (Stephen Campbell Moore).
And all of the above doesn’t even manage to touch the sides of the other shenanigans afoot, which include Barrow’s introduction to a secret gay club in the middle of York (who knew?) and a major crisis over Lady Edith’s gown not arriving in time for the final ball at Harewood.
That last big scene is staged with proper finesse, as DP Ben Smithard’s cameras swoop and whirl among the golden lamplight, clearly bending a knee in homage to Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard. As the sleek, jazz age gowns glide by, pretty much all the plot’s loose ends are tidied up, particularly via a showdown with Violet, Maud and Violet’s always eminently sensible matriarchal foil, Isobel (Penelope Wilton).
The homestretch gives Dame Maggie in particular a chance to pull some of her most beloved haughty expressions of indignation and bemusement, making this a swan song farewell for a character who probably won’t be back for the next visit to the DAU. Although, you never know — she might grace us with her presence once more, to dispense tart one-liners dripping with disdain, adding the much-needed acidity that balances the fruity and tannic notes that make any good, claret-y glass of Downton like this go down well.
Production companies: Focus Features, Perfect World Pictures, Carnival Film & Television
Distribution: Focus Features
Cast: Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael, Robert James-Collier, Joanne Froggatt, Sophie McShera, Phyllis Logan, Jim Carter, Brendan Coyle, Stephen Campbell Moore, Simon Jones, Lesley Nicol, Kevin Doyle, Harry Hadden-Paton, Matthew Goode, Tuppence Middleton, Allen Leech, Kate Phillips, Raquel Cassidy, Geraldine James, Michael Fox, Andrew Havill, James Cartwright, Douglas Reith, Oliver Barker, Mark Addy, David Haig, Susan Lynch, Phillipe Spall, Max Brown, Imelda Staunton, Perry Fitzpatrick
Director: Michael Engler
Screenwriter: Julian Fellowes, based on the television series created by Julian Fellowes
Producers: Gareth Neame, Julian Fellowes, Liz Trubridge
Executive producers: Nigel Marchant, Brian Percival
Co-producer: Mark Hubbard
Director of photography: Ben Smithard
Production designer: Donal Woods
Costume designer: Anna Robbins
Editor: Mark Day
Music: John Lunn
Casting: Jill Trevellick
Rated PG, 122 minutes