Focus Features/122 mins
Television and cinema have always shared a tenuous relationship. For a long time, the preeminent form of visual storytelling was the movies, which had overshadowed the theatre before that. Then the looming threat of television came along, and for a bit, many thought it would signal the death of cinema. But the movies persevered and both cinema and television learned to get along together. But there has always been a line drawn firmly in the dirt between movies and television. If a television show has ever wanted to cross that line before, it had to declare itself the “movie” version of the show. X-Files: The Movie, The Brady Bunch: The Movie, et cetera. Then television started to evolve. The line has blurred and most television shows hardly see the need in showing up on the silver screen if they want to make a big event episode that’s too hot for prime time.
But thanks to creator Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey hasn’t gotten that message and defiantly is keeping things old school for a throwback Downton Abbey: The Movie. Most film versions of television shows are due to ambitious storyline set-ups between seasons, prematurely canceled show runs or a nostalgic sense of ending a story by going out with a bang. For Downton Abbey, the nostalgic return to old friends is there, but Fellowes and Friends hardly want to shake things up or end with any real shocking cliffhangers.
Which is perfectly fine in a year where most big movies feel like the ending of television seasons than they do the endings of real movies. In an ironic turn of events, the movie based on a television franchise is the one that has the most conclusive ending. Not only that but the stakes of the movie are almost dangerously low, at least to those who are uninitiated. To fans of the series, what may be more surprising is the charmingly cinematic opening credits sequence that takes its time to show the lifespan of an letter sent from Buckingham Palace all the way across the countryside, by train, car, bike, and butler, to the front doors of Downton Abbey, where the Crawley family discover that their estate will house the King and Queen of England in three days time.
And that’s about the extent of the plot for the Downton Abbey film, which flies by at a brisk two-hour pace that never overstays its welcome, the majority of the story dealing with the upstairs and downstairs cast dealing with the Royal visit and the obstacles that come with it, including a delightfully fun caper involving the staff of the house reclaiming their work from the Royal servants, and a few darker B-Storylines involving Tom Branson’s (Allen Leech) political convictions and Thomas Barrow’s (Robert James-Collier) repressed sexuality, both carried over from the television show.
Each storyline of the film has their moments of cinematic flair, a fancy fluid master shot of the house here, a clever shot looking out through a keyhole there, but none of them really add anything to the visual storytelling of the film, because perhaps Downton Abbey’s biggest flaw is that even as a film, it adheres to the law of television, specifically British television, in which the director is nothing more than a hired hand, and the writer is king.
And in the end, this hardly matters, because as long as the true mastermind behind Downton Abbey is at the helm, all is well, and fans can rest assured knowing that Julian Fellowes still has a strong grasp on the characters he’s created, and a loving hand in which he cradles them through their various trials and tribulations, however quaint or serious they may be. And the cast of characters themselves need no real direction. Each and every member of the cast is a veteran in their own way, and knows their characters inside and out. Michelle Dockery, Maggie Smith, Elizabeth McGovern, Hugh Bonneville, and the rest of the talented cast could play their characters in their sleep, without the need of any aid or vision from an outside director.
Both the cast and Fellowes’ knack for interweaving melodrama provide plenty of entertainment, not only for die-hard fans of the show, but also for those who are uninitiated, although it may be helpful for those who are not completely up to date on the show to go through a crash course of all the storylines throughout the six-season run, as the film does not have time to hold hands with those who aren’t fully aware of everyone’s specific character arc. Even without that knowledge, the basic story of the film itself is entertaining for anyone who wanders in. Each storyline provides the entertaining highs and lows that one has come to expect from the beloved show, and Fellowes finds a way to make every loose end that began at the start of the film tie up nicely, so that each character gets a satisfying end that everyone can walk away from with a smile on their face. Downton Abbey is dramatic, even melancholic at times, but it is never a tragedy.
All of this finds a way to be compressed into two hours of pleasant filmgoing without feeling crammed or forced at all, and its hard to imagine that anyone would walk away from Downton Abbey feeling as though they have wasted time. If anything, Fellowes’ farewell to his beloved characters feels like a pleasant holiday away, and in the end, who wouldn’t want an enjoyable stay inside Downton?