Review: Delightful ‘Downton Abbey’ proves you can go home again
Fans of the PBS Masterpiece television series “Downton Abbey” waited a long time for the movie version of the British historical period drama.
For those devoted followers that invested six seasons watching 52 episodes of the TV show from Sept. 26, 2010, through Dec. 25, 2015, the movie is well worth the wait. It’s also proof that you can come home again – even if “home” is a revisit to the magnificent fictional estate that the Crawley family and their servants and staff share in Yorkshire County in Northern England.
The film, opening Sept. 20 in the U.S. following its debut in the United Kingdom on Sept. 13, picks up where the TV series left off. It’s now 1927, two years later, and not much has changed at Downton – except that the king and queen are coming for dinner.
The movie opens with the audience riding along on the Royal Mail train through the beautiful English countryside as a messenger prepares to deliver the notice announcing the soon-to-be arrival of King George V and Queen Mary for one night — a visit based on a true historical event.
The news might have any normal family in a dither, with questions such as what to serve and what to wear — but the Crawleys aren’t at all normal and have the situation well under control, since the downstairs staff is in charge of all the preparations, from polishing the silver to harvesting fresh vegetables from the garden.
The whole family and staff breathe a collective sigh of relief when the retired Mr. Carson (played by Jim Carter) arrives to take charge of this very important event at the personal request of Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery) and her husband Henry (Matthew Goode), who run the estate.
To update those Downton fans who are familiar with the original characters, Carson is still married to Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), who remains the head housekeeper at the castle.
Barrow (Robert James-Collier) has taken Carson’s place as the butler; Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) is still the head cook assisted by the adorable Daisy Mason (Sophie McShera), who’s still speaking her mind whenever she pleases and remains as uncertain as ever about whether or not she wants to marry footman Andy Parker (Michael Fox).
Edith, married to Bertie Pelham, the Marquess of Hexham, comes back to Downton at the request of her mother (Elizabeth McGovern) to bolster the family front for the king and queen’s visit.
The back-and-forth sarcastic quips between Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) and Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) are the most delightful parts of the movie. Smith’s portrayal of Violet, especially at the touching end of the film, is magnificent and surely award-worthy.
Daisy, too, has some funny off-the-cuff lines when she expresses her displeasure in catering to the whims of the royal visitors. “I don’t like kings either; I must be a republican,” she comments when plans for an elaborate dinner are being made in the kitchen.
While much of the movie revolves around the whirlwind of preparations for the royal occasion, one of the subplots involves the reaction from the downstairs staff when they learn their services won’t be needed for the royal visit.
An attempt by the royal butler and housekeeper to temporarily take their places is cause for a minor uprising by the servants — a little hard to imagine but amusing nevertheless (and successful in the end).
There’s also an interesting subplot about Barrow and his experience of being a gay man in the late 1920s that could be explored further in a sequel.
It should be noted that, while fans of the TV series will have an edge in knowing the back stories of the characters, it’s really not required for enjoying the excitement of preparing for the royal visit — or admiring the exquisite period clothing worn by the Crawley women. (The film’s costume designer, Anna Mary Scott Robbins, should be in line for an award alongside Maggie Smith.)
It is nice, though, for Downton followers to come back to the world of the British aristocracy, if only for two hours, to see how the Crawley clan is adapting to life changes around them and how they are preparing for an inevitable changing of the guard at the estate.
If “Downton Abbey” creator-screenwriter Julian Fellowes and director Michael Engler aren’t yet involved in planning a sequel, they really should be.
There’s still a lot of uncharted territory at Downton Abbey.
Candy Williams is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.