If you haven’t finished season 6’s Christmas special of Downton Abbey, please stop here and go watch that first. Not only will that save you from possible spoilers, but it’s a damn good episode. Like, everything you ever wanted to happen happens and you cry happy tears about it.
Okay I might be exaggerating a little. But seriously, the Christmas special wrapped everything up so nicely, I came away thinking that nothing more needed to be said. So…several years later, the movie hits the big screen and, while I am excited, I’m thinking, “What more could they do?”
Turns out, quite a lot. A notice arrives announcing that King George V and Queen Mary will be staying at Downton (you can invite yourself over if you’re royal, apparently). Mary wonders if Downton is a relic of the past and toys with the idea of downsizing. Newly-reformed nice guy Thomas Barrow wrestles with his sexuality. And a family member appears who threatens Robert’s inheritance. The impending appearance of royalty is preceded by the arrival of the royal staff, which results in a literal case of “too many cooks in the kitchen”. A sort of civil war breaks out between the two sets of staff, and the Downton crew, headed first by Barrow then joined by Carson (strangely with nary a trace of palsy), must defend their honour.
There’s a certain amount of satisfaction in seeing characters who are normally docile become militant in their own fashion. Anna, Mrs. Hughes and even Andy are almost unrecognizable as they fight to keep their jobs. I won’t give it away but for a moment there, I almost had the sense that I was watching an Ocean’s Eleven sequel rather than Downton Abbey.
While the downstairs population wages a quiet war, the upstairs follows suit in its own fashion. And of course, much of this is headed by the Dowager Countess of Grantham played by the irrepressible Maggie Smith. No words can describe how glad I am to see her in fine form, wielding nuance like a sword and, as ever, teetering on the brink of making countless enemies.
The other noteworthy character is Molesley (Kevin Doyle) who comes back to Downton in a fit of royalist love. His awkwardness in the presence of the king and queen is a such thing of beautiful comedy that he’s probably going to become the face of memes everywhere. If the Countess of Grantham is the Queen of Nuance, then Molesley simply has to be the King of Gawk.
Unfortunately, these two characters shine rather strongly for a script that is as subtle as a bear in a tutu. Something Downton fans have become accustomed to is the quiet undercurrent of everything. The inkling of a problem may casually pop its head out here and there. Meanwhile, wine is poured, clocks are wound and people repeatedly change clothes. It’s only much further down the track that the problem gets outright acknowledged when many other events (or non-events) have come and gone. Here, in a span of two hours, conflicts are introduced and abruptly resolved at a speed that feels uncharacteristic. Probably the biggest victim of the two hour duration is Tom Branson (Allan Leach). Thoughtful and idealistic, who hasn’t loved seeing him gradually find his place in one of the most powerful families? But here, we see him making cocky decisions and throwing out advice like a fortune cookie.
Many of the plot developments also feel pretty obvious. I made several calls early on as to what was going to happen and unfortunately, I was right about all of them (and I didn’t want to be).
What we can enjoy though are the little things we’ve always loved. Slow drone shots of the estate. That opening soul-stirring soundtrack that’s embedded in the brain. The setting that is so undeniably English, it makes you want to pack your bags for an OE. Even Carson’s three-dimensional eyebrows are something to “aw” over. It’s a sort of homecoming that only fans will understand.