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Downton Abbey (Movie Review)

About the Film

Grab a steaming cup of tea and some scones, because everyone’s favorite Lords and Ladies (and their considerable support staff) have returned for this feature-length installment of Downton Abbey. After a wildly successful six-season run that captivated audiences on both sides of the pond, this movie was almost inevitable. Because, let’s face it. Love them or hate them, we just can’t get enough of the Grantham family.

I admit that I’m about as die-hard of a Downton Abbey fan as they come. I have watched every episode of the series (most of them twice) and recently made a pilgrimage to Highclere Castle in England where both the television show and the film were shot. So it should come as no surprise that I have been both excited and a little nervous about seeing this film. Would it live up to the hype or should the Downton Abbey franchise have quit while it was ahead? I think the answer is somewhere in the middle.

For the three people on earth who haven’t seen the show (one of whom is my brother Daniel, who saw the movie with me), Downton Abbey is a British period drama (*ahem* soap opera) set in the 1910s and 20s that follows Lord Grantham and his family—as well as their servants—as they navigate the rapidly changing world around them. With the aristocracy a dying breed, the family must make a choice between clinging to the past and embracing a new era. Of course, it wouldn’t be a proper period drama without throwing in a myriad of love interests, heartbreak, and shocking intrigue.

The film, which takes place about a year after the television show left off, is essentially a continuation of that overarching storyline.

The opening scene shows a letter being delivered to Downton Abbey (which long-time fans will recognize as a nod to the opening scene of the television series) announcing that the king and queen of England will be visiting as part of their royal tour. Predictably, the news throws the entire household into a tizzy as they scramble to make the necessary preparations (Will the silver be polished in time? What should we serve? And, more importantly, what should we wear?? Oh, the suspense!). The entire plot revolves around that royal visit, and includes the requisite amount of romance, glamour, and scheming that Downton fans have come to expect.

The film—like the television show—essentially offers feel-good escapism. It is comforting with a hefty dose of nostalgia. Most of the drama is superficial (worries about a dress arriving in time, squabbles among the staff, etc.) with a few heavier themes thrown in (being trapped in an unhappy marriage, treatment of homosexuals, etc.). The film is also heavy on the humor—with the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) and Isobel Grey (Penelope Wilton) exchanging sharp-witted one-liners and Molesley (Kevin Doyle) being, well, Molesley. At times, the humor seems a bit forced and veers into silliness. But overall it is a pleasurable film to watch.

Though someone who has never seen the show would be able to follow the storyline (which is packed with more subplots than there are courses at the royal dinner), the film will mostly appeal to long-time fans who are already familiar with the wide cast of characters.

Is it earth shattering? No. Is it the film equivalent of curling up with a nice cup of tea and a good book on a rainy Sunday afternoon? Absolutely.

For Consideration

On the Surface—(Profanity, Sexual content, violence, etc.).

Profanity: There are one or two minor slang words and one or two blasphemous references.

Sexuality: One of the subplots follows a pretty heavy-handed gay romance, which involves some flirting, dancing, and a kiss. There are also a few scenes that show one of the female leads in her undergarments (though given that the film is set in 1920s, she is still more covered up than what you’d see on any given Tuesday at a shopping mall…).

Violence: At one point, a gun is pulled out and there is a brief tussle. Another scene involves the police breaking up a clandestine gay gathering and carting the attendees off to prison. But this is Downton Abbey, not Saw III. There is probably more violence in a Saturday morning cartoon.

Beneath the Surface— (Themes, philosophical messages, worldview, etc.)

1. Determining What Matters

Something that shows up in many of the characters’ storylines is the struggle to determine what matters in life—especially as it relates to family ties and friendships. Characters must decide if they should prioritize family harmony over politics, duty to their country over their personal happiness, and support their friends at the cost of their own principles. In the end, the importance of family ties and friendships mostly win out.

2. Navigating A Changing World

Long-time fans of the show won’t be surprised that the film continues a theme that was central to all six seasons of the television series: is it better to cling to the past or embrace the future?

On the surface, the British ruling class must decide if their aristocratic lifestyle is worth holding onto as the world around them advances and their way of life becomes a relic of the past.

But on an individual level, many of the characters—both upstairs and downstairs—have to determine what their role will be in the new world, and whether society is changing for the better.

Final Verdict

This film offers two hours of pleasant, mostly light-hearted voyeurism into the British ruling class. If you liked the show, you will enjoy many aspects of this film. It offers everything viewers loved about the television series—wit, glamour, romance—and it offers it in spades. Though the ending is arguably too tidy (the good guys get what they want, everyone finds love, and the glorious Downton Abbey will live to fight another day), it offers some closure for fans who weren’t quite ready to pack in the Egyptian-cotton-monogrammed towel.

Recommendation: For die-hard fans and those looking for a pleasant escape, it’s worth shelling out to see it in theater. Otherwise, wait and stream it or rent it on Redbox.

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