The premiere of “Downton Abbey” in the U.K. in the fall of 2010 made for a strong contrast with contemporaries like the cynically angry “Breaking Bad” and the cynically sexy “Mad Men.” That the earnest, nostalgic show was a hit across the pond made sense. But even PBS didn’t believe “Downton” would take off here, condensing the show’s first season down to five episodes from seven and airing it in the doldrums of January.
How wrong everyone was. The show not only became PBS’ biggest series since the 1970s-era “Poldark,” it made ratings history with 24 million viewers tuning in to the premiere of season three, beating out broadcast and cable networks alike. Now, three years after the series finale, “Downton Abbey” is back in movie format, where it once again exceeds all expectations by doing what it’s always been so good at.
“Downton Abbey” is back in movie format, where it once again exceeds all expectations by doing what it’s always been so good at.
The film brings nearly the entire cast back, including writer Julian Fellowes and director Michael Engler. And they manage to perfectly recreate the chemistry of the show. This onscreen rapport is a necessity, because the movie also adheres tightly to the main secret of the series’ success: nothing happens.
“The King and Queen are coming to Downton,” as the trailer proclaimed. And that’s it, that’s all that happens. A family of wealthy privileged people put up a pair of even wealthier ones for the night. And yet, this simplicity is what viewers tune in for. With the current pace of modern life, it has always been soothing to go back to a time when the world was smaller, where the stakes feel so much lower. In a generation overwhelmed by technology, it was comforting to be reminded that once upon a time, electricity spawned conspiracy theories, and a kitchen staff could be suspicious of a toaster.
Indeed, in those original seven episodes, very little happens. The Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his family are buffered by two historical events that begin and end the tale: the sinking of the Titanic, and the beginning of the Great War. In between, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) may have a man die in her bed, but there is no scandal. She meets Matthew, but there is no engagement. Her sister, Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), also fails to get engaged. Lady Sybil wears pants once.
The series easily loses days, hours, months in between scenes. The petty day-to-day struggles aren’t important. It is less a family drama than a top-down view of one of the many caretaker generations of the titular house, whose world we experience like a stone skimming across the waters of their lives. The show struggled in later years with the loss of this way of thinking, as it got more bogged down in the day-to-day. Seasons one and two covered a full decade. The next four covered less than five years. But the film brings back that sense of skimming along.
The movie takes place 18 months since season six’s Christmas special series finales. King George V is taking a grand tour of Yorkshire in the wake of the 1926 General Strike, using the houses of the aristocracy as free hotels as he travels. His imminent arrival throws the house into an uproar. Retired butler Carson (Jim Carter) is pressed back into service and servants who left the house for other careers clamor to be brought on for the week to be part of the experience. Subplots abound. The most important is the one downstairs, as the servants, after spending a week preparing, discover the king and queen travel with their own sets of butlers, chefs, footmen and maids, leading to a turf war.
But those upstairs have problems, too. In what feels like a nod to “The Crown,” the royal family struggles with Princess Mary’s unhappy marriage to the Earl of Harewood. Tom Branson (Alan Leech), the Grantham’s Irish son-in-law, finds himself tagged as a potential rabble-rouser. Lady Mary has to set up the chairs for the parade after dark in a rainstorm. Lady Edith’s dress delivery is screwed up.
Thankfully, Maggie Smith is here as the Dowager Countess Violet to bring all the gravitas she can muster to this glorious dramatic nothingburger. In one brilliant bit of casting, a mysteriously lost-lost Grantham cousin, Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) is part of the royal entourage. A childless widow, Lady Maud apparently had a falling out with Violet over who should be named her heir, perhaps due to a secretive and too-close relationship with her maid, Lucy (Tuppence Middleton). Staunton and Smith are brilliant together, and Violet’s refusal to take no for an answer gives Smith a lot more room to run.
But the sweetest subplot is given to Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier). His character spent most of the original series as the “evil footman,” whose cruelty stemmed from his life as a closeted gay man. Relieved from the butler position by Carson’s return, he winds up making friends with one of the king’s under-valets, who opens his eyes (and the audience’s) to an underground that world history has forgotten and to the possibilities of romance most would deny existed.
The “Downton Abbey” movie may have some important things to say about societal evolution, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. If anything, writer Fellowes is too concerned with making sure that all of his characters get a happy ending. But in an entertainment landscape determined to drive home humanity’s horribleness, the pastoral calmness of “Downton” is a blessed escape.