When a feature film is demanded by an enthusiastic fan base after the end of a popular television show, it can fall into the trap of trying to do too much with too little time. When you have a program as beloved and packed with characters as Downton Abbey, it almost seems like there’s no way for this to work in a two-hour film. However, I’m always happy to be proven wrong.
It’s 1927, and a year has passed since the television series ended. The Crawley family and the staff of Downton Abbey are reeling from the announcement of a forthcoming royal visit. King George V and Lady Mary will be staying at Downton as part of a more extensive trip. The upstairs and downstairs crew are equally anxious about this visit because it could impact their reputations and that of Downton itself. Throughout this visit, we check in with the several dozen characters audiences know and love, and if I went into further specifics on individual characters this review would be impossibly long, so we’re not going to do that.
Full disclosure, I have not seen the entire run of Downton Abbey. This was not something I watched weekly, and it has always been something on my list that I’ve never gotten around to – a list that is still getting longer. In preparation for this film, I wanted to watch at least a few episodes of the series, to get an idea of the names and the characters and what they mean to the story and why they’re essential. I ended up blowing through two seasons in record time. The high-class trashy soap opera thing Downton has going on is irresistible and easily accessible.
The Downton Abbey film is a bit of a miracle because you don’t need to have seen every single episode of the series to appreciate it. We begin with a bit of a recap that re-introduces everybody to the viewer with lots of expository dialogue, but not in a way that feels like hand-holding. As a result, even the uninitiated have a way into this world and a reason to care about what becomes of these characters. Now, I could see how this could be irritating to big fans of the series who might feel that this much exposition is a waste of time. And there are lots of viewers of the series who might need a little refresher on everything. So, it may work for you and may not.
I thought my problem with Downton Abbey would be the same problem I have with the Avengers movies. It is very difficult (borderline impossible) to have a film with a cast this giant and give everyone a story arc that feels full and complete. We spend enough time with just about everyone in these two quick hours to make it feel substantial. Could it have given more time to each character without adding a lot of bulk to the running time? Probably. But part of the Downton movie’s charm is the breezy pace and the tone that never gets too dark.
Michael Engler, a director who has worked primarily in television, having directed several episodes of the show, returns alongside screenwriter and series creator Julian Fellowes. Even though the production value was always top-notch for TV, there is something to the sweeping overhead crane shots of Downton Abbey that bring something more to this on the big screen. Everything in this film feels impossibly grand and lush. And to an extent, that’s what this show has always been. This efficiently crafted film leaves the door open for yet another visit to Downton, and I’d welcome that gladly. Downton Abbey is lavish escapism at its finest.