Imagine an entire season of storylines crammed into a Christmas special and that’s what the film spin-off from the much lauded and beloved Downton Abbey TV series feels like. Nothing wrong with that, of course, for its legions of fans who can’t wait to find out what’s been happening upstairs and downstairs at the Crawley family stately home since we last saw them four years ago. But for anyone coming cold to this lavish pleasure cruise through the lifestyles of the aristocratic and their devoted servants, it’s episodic nature, superficial narrative, barely-there plot developments and character arcs played out for maximum sentiment might be a little too much to take. Hey, if it ain’t broke, etc.
It’s 1927 and everyone at Downton is all of a dither about a royal visit from King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) during their upcoming tour of Yorkshire. Lord of the manor Robert (Hugh Bonneville), his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and their thoroughly modern daughter Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) want everything shipshape and Bristol fashion to impress and the staff can’t wait to step up to the majestic mark. But Mary is worried that head butler Barrow (Robert James-Collier) can’t cope and reinstates retired Mr Carson (Jim Carter) to oversee preparations, much to the chagrin of his housekeeper wife (Phyllis Logan).
Unfortunately, it looks like none of the below-stairs workers will be needed as a London entourage arrives led by the bossy Mr Wilson (David Haig) who’s ready to take care of every royal whim from cooking to dressing. So, the miffed staff has a quick meeting in the wine cellars to decide a rebellious course of action to ensure they will take their rightful places at this historic event. Meanwhile, everyone is worried about what embarrassment Irish Republican Tom Branson (Allen Leech) might cause, there’s a whiff of inheritance scandal, priceless knick-knacks are going missing and Lady Edith’s ballgown doesn’t look like it will arrive in time for the dance… Frock horror!
Directed by Michael Engler, a past master of the TV series, who knows exactly what the audience wants, expects and delivers, this is a safe and sumptuous combination of wit, taste and charm just about held together by returning creator/screenwriter Julian Fellowes, whose ability to weave through and around the intricacies of the British class system with breathless ease is astonishing. Here Fellowes expertly juggles with deceptive simplicity the welter of previously half-started plotlines with a few new wrinkles, mainly concerning the Crawley family feud with the Queen’s companion Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton).
Does it matter you can see the pay-offs coming from the get-go? Not really. That’s the Downton appeal in a nutshell: cosy comfort-viewing played to the cliché hilt by a miraculous cast of national treasures enveloped in exquisite settings and luxurious locations. The main difference between its TV origins and this film incarnation is an even more visually glorious, epic scope and extensive use of drone cameras for sweeping countryside vistas.
Every cast member gets their moment in the spotlight and each rises to the irresistible occasion as it becomes clear the main screenplay thrust is the old guard making way for the younger generation and all that means in terms of future franchise opportunities.
While the virtuoso character dynamics continue to fuse, spark and play to the gallery in time-honoured fashion, perhaps the most hilariously crowd-pleasing moment comes courtesy of returning servant Molesley (Kevin Doyle) when he commits the ultimate royal faux pas. Then there’s the indomitable Maggie Smith, the quintessential grand dame of Downton, whose Countess of Grantham steals every scene with her distinct snobbery, disdainful detachment and brittle comments that cut straight to the quick. Her prickly relationship with Baroness Isobel (Penelope Wilton) remains a one-liner delight and there won’t be a dry eye in the house come the spectacular ballroom finale. Memo to Smith: get those awards acceptance speeches ready.
A feast for the eyes in terms of gilt-edged production resplendence, this is elegant, well-groomed and highly polished costume drama to savour. It won’t win any converts to the Downton cause, as you really do have to be a die-hard fan to get the significance of many alluded-to past events. But for those who have loved the high-society soap tomfoolery and lowbrow kitchen-sink mischief, spanning the sinking of the Titanic to the horrors of the First World War and that car crash at the end of Season Three, it’s time to rejoice as Downton Abbey the movie is everything you want it to be and with a cocktail olive on top.