It is difficult to imagine someone going to see the Downton Abbey movie who has not watched the British television series that was all the rage before we learned British people could bake. It is even more difficult to imagine the uninitiated could get anything out of it. To its credit, Downton Abbey bets mightily on your existing affiliation with the characters and world. This allows it to get down to business in that pragmatic way that is typical of the Crawleys and their household staff and to indulge in the refined panache they, and we, have come to expect from the estate. The production value of the show always outmatched its small screen medium. Downton seems at home on the big screen.
The film is a fitting addition to the series, less an “end all” than it is a potent distillation of the series’ strongest themes. The film feels like a condensed season of the show in the best possible way. Its inciting incident seems of sufficient magnitude in the lives of the characters to warrant a big screen even if the film is, thankfully, short on pyrotechnics. Downton Abbey has always been a character-driven story with twentieth century historical highlights as background plot elements, so it is here as well. The only negative critique I have of this film is that since we are doing a season’s worth of work in just over two hours, we don’t get a lot of anyone, but we do get a little of everyone. Creator/screenwriter Julian Fellows, editor Mark Day, and director Michael Engler get the mix just right.
I won’t re-litigate Downton Abbey’s usual theme—the constantly negotiated value of tradition in changing times. I will touch on a wrinkle new to the story in this film though. If you want to go into Downton Abbey without knowing anything about the plot, this is you chance to excuse yourself from this review. No one will give you shade for doing so.
The inciting incident in this film is a visit from the King and Queen, you know, of England, to the Abbey. This is a cause for much excitement amongst the Crawleys, their staff, and the village. Everyone thrills to have the chance to do their best for their Majesties. They may or may not get to, because the royals travel with a staff of servants that minds the needs of the Windsors like an entourage minding the rider for the Rolling Stones. It’s a compelling dynamic, because we’ve come to respect, if not love, this upstairs/downstairs crew precisely for their stalwart professionalism and devotion to the ideals of their society. The idea of them not getting to serve the King and Queen in person after they’ve spent their lives serving them in absentia is tragic. It also adds a neat tension to the tale: do they submit to the authority of the royal staff as duty demands, or contend for their own rights to serve?
I was reminded of Babette’s Feast while watching Downton Abbey. The theme is similar. Great artists wait their entire lives for the chance to do their absolute best. The art of the denizens of Downton Abbey is grocery or kitchen craft or table service or party planning or silver polishing or protocol. It would be the joy of their lives to do their absolute best in service of their king. They should not be denied that. For me, the metaphor is gripping. I teared up every time someone demanded the chance to do their utmost for their highest. “God is a monarchist,” Mary drolly asserts at one point in the proceedings. Not exactly, but point taken, milady.