The PBS channel – a.k.a. Principally British Shows in some circles – hit the jackpot with Downton Abbey, which for six seasons ruled the TV realm with a stately aplomb that Game of Thrones can only dream of.
This wonderfully acted and emotionally rich soap opera chronicled the complicated lives of the Crawley family amidst their sprawling country estate full of servants; the backdrop was equally rich, as England staggered through the Great War and then struggled with great social change during the turbulent 1920s. And one of the best qualities of Downton was how the lives of the servants “below stairs” were taken just as seriously – and given just as much screen time – as the lords and ladies swanning about in the plushly appointed rooms above.
And now, millions of bereft fans are invited back for another visit via the long-anticipated Downton film adaptation. The Emmy-winning series, with its 52 episodes, was an elaborate, seemingly endless banquet; the two-hour movie is, of necessity, just a quick brunch. But it’s a tasty repast nonetheless, full of pomp, circumstance, nostalgia, gossip … and the deliciously barbed wit of Maggie Smith’s immortally acidic Dowager Countess.
The plot involves an overnight visit by King George V and Queen Mary, an honour that throws the household into an uproar. Much of the conflict – and comedy – involves the royal retinue, a prideful crew including a pretentious French chef, an imperious butler with a pompous title, and numerous valets, footmen and serving staff. They are always brought along to cater to the royals when travelling, and in their arrogance think nothing of sidelining the entire Downton staff.
But you patronize a champion butler like Carson at your peril and the spirited response of the likes of Mrs. Patmore, Daisy and Anna provides considerable light-hearted amusement.
All the familiar Downton tropes, from the stately music to the fraught family politics, are here woven together with a skillful touch. And the considerable moments of comedy reach an apogee when that sublimely awkward ditherer, Mr. Molesley, has an unexpected moment with the King he adores.
Although the movie just skips along on the surface of things, and won’t mean much to non-initiates, Downton’s many devotees will cherish this opportunity to spend more time in the company of all these old friends.
Stars Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery
Directed by Michael Engler
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