I am writing this review during the 2019 Emmy Awards, which is appropriate since the “Downton Abbey” TV series won quite a few Emmys back in the day. But I never watched an episode of the show, so this review is not coming from a place of nostalgia. In fact, I came into the film with a decided disadvantage, because the world of “Downton Abbey” is clearly lush with characters with highly-developed backstories, and while the movie isn’t exactly devoid of a convenient entry point, it doesn’t waste a lot of time with introductions either. I must confess that I spent much of this movie lost, not knowing who the characters were, where they stood with one another, or even if similar-looking people from different scenes were the same person or not. If you’re a longtime follower and don’t have time for someone left in the dust to play catch-up, I completely understand. I’m sure you’ll like this movie, I can’t imagine it betrays the integrity of the franchise in any way, go see it. I can only provide a novice’s perspective.
The film centers around the Downton Abbey estate, circa 1927, getting a visit from the King and Queen of England. I suppose if ever there was an occasion to give these people a movie, this would be it. The royal visit calls for a reunion of the aristocratic Crawley family, including father Robert (Hugh Bonneville), mother Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), oldest daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery), middle daughter Edith (Laura Carmichael), Edith’s husband Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton), son-in-law Tom (Allen Leech), and grandmother Violet (Maggie Smith). Storylines include Mary considering moving away from the estate, Edith worrying that the King will send Bertie to Africa, where he will miss the birth of their child, Tom being privy to a plot to assassinate the King, and Violet wanting to resolve an inheritance dispute with her cousin (Imelda Staunton), the lady-in-waiting of the Queen.
But it’s not all about stuffy aristocrats. There are stuffy servants with stories of their own. The occasion calls for the return of retired former butler Carson (Jim Carter), much to the dismay of current butler Barrow (Robert James-Collier), who skulks off to contend with injustices of the day. The King and Queen are bringing their own servants, which upsets the Downton staff, as serving royals would be a high point of their lives. They’re ordered to stay out of the way, but some sleeping pills and locked doors may say otherwise.
Apologies to the seemingly dozens of characters and storylines that I’ve left out, but this is a very crowded movie. Fortunately, the dialogue is snappy and concise, with the stories mostly progressing at a pleasing pace. That is, until the final act of the film, where the setting changes from Downton Abbey itself to a royal ball at another location. The film becomes awkward and inefficient during this sequence, as if the unfamiliar venue is somehow affecting its creative process.
To be sure, this movie is everything one could want in a big-screen version of “Downton Abbey.” The costumes, hair, sets, and music are all impeccable. The performances are engaging, the dialogue is witty, and the atmosphere, though necessarily dramatic in parts, is generally so pleasant that it’s hard to not find the film incredibly agreeable. That said, I never achieved the familiarity with the characters that I suspect I was supposed to. I definitely came out with a better understanding of the world of “Downton Abbey” than when I came in, but I can’t imagine getting more than mild enjoyment out of this film without doing time-consuming research first.
“Downton Abbey” is rated PG for thematic elements, some suggestive material, and language. Its running time is 122 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.