Downton Abbey is the story of the trials and tribulations of the Crawley family, wealthy owners of a large English country estate in the early 20th century. The beloved costume romance drama TV series ran for 6 seasons with a few specials and developed a loyal and devoted global fan base. While it created some noteworthy movie stars in Dan Stevens and Jessica Brown Findlay, who both made a break into film, the series stalwarts in Maggie Smith, Michelle Dockery and Hugh Bonneville have kept the home fires burning.
Testament to the show’s fantastic run, it has made the leap from the small screen to the big screen with some grace, pomp and pride in the shape of the Downton Abbey film thanks to creator, producer and writer, Julian Fellowes and director Michael Engler. Faithful to the series in terms of tone and tempo, it picks up shortly after the events of the last series as Downton Abbey prepares for a royal visit.
Fellowes and Engler have managed to retain the essence of the TV series, translating it into a cinematic format, giving the cinematography more freedom of movement, adding more detail in terms of sets and expanding the ensemble to include new characters around the King’s impending visit. Taking some of the trappings usually reserved for a sequel, they’ve made it bigger, expanded the cast and thrown more money at it. Somehow, the adaptation has managed to give each of the primary characters and stars a place in the sun, scattershot in the best possible meaning of the word. While the cinematic treatment elevates the story from grand to grandiose, the bland peril and underdeveloped characters keep things lightweight albeit pleasant.
“Oh, Lord Grantham!”
The King’s staff, the dedication to form and pageantry become a matter of keeping up appearances, making this a truly British affair. Throwing some spanners into the well-oiled Downton Abbey machine, possibly tipping the hat to Stephen King’s Overlook hotel boiler, several subplots surface that could turn to humiliation or tragedy. As if operating with white butler gloves, the handling of these challenges is downplayed, subverting the depth of dramatic impact or aftershock. This keeps things lightweight and cheerful, echoing the mantra of “keep calm and carry on”, playing it safe for a somewhat refreshing change from Hollywood’s usual appetite.
By trying to pay every character their dues amid a stream of “insurgents”, the film has a soft focus, which once again keeps the conversation on the weather. These elements are in keeping with the TV series, relying on the ensemble’s familiarity with their characters, chemistry and history to create depth and layering. While sumptuous, it knows its audience and sets out to please in a delightful way, cleverly punctuating proceedings with priceless expressions and witticisms. It’s amusing, entertaining and beautifully shot, making it a cut above when it comes to period piece romance drama, however, it’s somewhat restrained by its superficial handling and attempts to please everyone.
You can give Fellowes and Engler credit for managing to check all the boxes at the risk of coming across as a tad bland or glib. Fans of the TV series will be more generous with the much-anticipated event and return to Downton Abbey. Yet, it will serve as a solid introduction to Downton Abbey and a worthy standalone adaptation to the uninitiated with little doubt of a sequel.
The bottom line: Delightful