Downton Abbey, the movie: A stand-alone story for newbies, but a fan-friendly return to the English country manor

By Karen Gordon

Rating: B+ 

The legions of loyal fans of the globally popular British period TV series Downton Abbey - which wrapped its sixth and final season in 2015 – aren’t let down by the series’ first feature film.   

The story picks up in 1927 – less than two years after the series finale.  The Crawleys, Robert (Hugh Bonneville) and Cora, (Elizabeth McGovern), and their daughter Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), get word that King George V and Queen Mary are traveling in Yorkshire and will stay at Downton Abbey for a night.  This means they will have to organize a parade and a formal dinner for the royal couple. The Lady Mary, is now in charge of running the estate, and of course worrying about how to pay for the upkeep of this massive house. And it falls to her to coordinate.  

Look who’s back in the Downton Abbey movie. (Photo: Jaap Buitendijk / © 2019 Focus Features, LLC)

Look who’s back in the Downton Abbey movie. (Photo: Jaap Buitendijk / © 2019 Focus Features, LLC)

Downton staff are also swept up in the excitement of this news and are determined to show off their best, but when Lady Mary is unhappy with the way she feels the major domo Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) is responding to preparations, she appeals to his retired predecessor, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), to step back in for this one occasion.

Read our interview with Downton Abbey's Phyllis Logan and Lesley Nicol

On top of that, an advance team shows up to check the rooms and brief the staff who discover that the Royals travel with their own chef and their own service team, which means they won’t get to cook for or serve their guests. That’s a sore point with head cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) who clearly isn’t going to take that news lying down.                                                

Preparations for the visit kick starts a series of situations and issues that engage each of the key characters, some of them life changing.

The movie, written by series creator Julian Fellowes and directed by veteran Downton producer-director Michael Engler, feels like an extended episode of the series, in that it doesn’t change its tone or pace to give it a big screen feel. Rather they have wisely kept things on course.  As it turns, out the established style of the series works nicely on the big screen.

Characters find themselves in challenging or unusual situations, but Fellowes hasn’t bogged the film down with a lot of complicated storylines, or overwrought dialogue.

As with the series, the movie is a mix of situational comedy and some drama.  It touches on politics, personal and national, as well as other issues of class and status, that feel both era-specific and contemporary.  

And, of course, Maggie Smith as the crusty matriarch Violet Crawley, still gets the best lines.

So, the question is, if you haven’t watched the series, will you still enjoy the film if the Downton fan in your life drags you to a screening?  

The movie doesn’t include a prelude that brings you up to date. Fellowes just gets on with the story. So, although you will not have some of the context, Fellowes cleverly provides a stand-alone story that you can enjoy, even if some of the backstory is missing. 

But, ultimately, this is one for the fans. The series ran for six years built a loyal international fan base who, thanks to terrific writing and plotting and fantastic cast, became attached to the characters and reluctant to let them go.  

For them, the movie is a chance to revisit and find out what their beloved characters have been up to in two years of offscreen-time.

Downton Abbey. Directed by Michael Engler, written by Julian Fellowes. Starring Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern. Opens wide Friday, September 20.