When Downton Abbey ended its television run in 2015, there was no question it would return in some capacity. It was not a question of “if”—it was a question of “when.” Now fans have their chance to revisit the Crawley household after a four-year absence, everyone and everything looking mostly the same in 1927, when the action is set. The main story revolves around the hasty preparations made to accommodate the King and Queen at Downton for a night during their tour of the country. Upstairs, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), the Crawleys’ eldest daughter and Downton’s future mistress, requests the help of former butler Carson (Jim Carter) when current butler Barrow (Robert James-Collier) struggles to maintain order amid the accelerated pace. Meanwhile, Mary’s imperious grandmother Violet, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), plots to ambush the Queen’s lady-in-waiting Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) and demand that Violet’s son Robert (Hugh Bonneville) be made her heir, as they are cousins. Downstairs, the servants bristle irately when their royal counterparts barge in and try to take over everyone’s positions… and so they fight back to preserve Downton’s honour, led by Mary’s personal maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt). As is usual for Downton, the upstarts are humiliated (but only congenially), the Crawleys persevere against setbacks, their servants staunchly hold up their dignity, and things end on a warm (if melancholy) note as Downton Abbey lives on for the present moment.
Now, that may have seemed easy enough to read, but that’s only a fraction of what goes on in this film. Showrunner Julian Fellowes seems to believe he has the liberty to squeeze in a season’s worth of subplots in a two-hour timeframe, and so he tries his hardest to do just that. On the plus side, most characters from the show get a chance to shine in some form, the biggest beneficiaries of Fellowes’ script being Irish son-in-law Tom Branson (Allen Leech), Barrow, Anna, and assistant cook Daisy (Sophie McShera). On the negative side, there is so much going on that the film hardly finds time to breathe. This is especially true of the first half, which is so focused on introducing every subplot that the rapid-fire editing between each one makes it hard to settle into the film’s groove. Fellowes’ kindness to his characters becomes, paradoxically, a detriment rather than a benefit, bloating the film past its saturation point when a slimmer, less chaotic script would’ve proved more elegant. Would such a script have given even more characters the short shrift? No doubt. But with Fellowes already hinting of a sequel, I’m sure he would’ve made it up to them.
For devoted fans, no amount of criticism could take away the flutters of nostalgia they’ll feel when they hear John Lunn’s iconic theme at the film’s opening, or their delighted giggles when Maggie Smith devours her acerbic one-liners (and there are many of them). Fellowes giftwraps the heartbeat of his beloved show and presents it to them intact, including all the glamour and beauty of the sets and costumes. It is difficult to deny them this brief moment of sunshine after such a long time away from this world. On the other end of the spectrum, those who haven’t watched the show, or dislike it, will understandably find this a slog to sit through, and so I wouldn’t even recommend they try. This is a film built heavily around the comforts of familiarity, and those who hold the keys to the gate are those who followed every season on television with a religious devotion. It is a continuation of that devotion that gives the film its meaning and purpose; those who have not tapped into it will find no reason to be here. Apart from that, on a more objective scale, this is the kind of lavish escapism I find harmless in nature, and one can do with more of it. It may have been served better as another TV season, certainly. But, on the other hand, to hear the joy of an audience meeting up with old friends is not an experience you’d want to surrender.