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Adaptations and sequels to TV shows don’t always translate well to the big screen. Sometimes what works on a weekly basis in your living room becomes difficult and unwieldly to control at the movies given the more limited narrative real estate. So while a film version of Downton Abbey was always in the cards, the chances of it capturing the intimate magic of writer/creator Julian Fellowes’ original character driven drama series wasn’t a given.
Yet against all the odds, and at a time when its most needed at the box office, Downton Abbey brings all of its charm back for its debut on the big screen, along with a few new tricks for fans and newcomers alike to enjoy.
Picking up approximately two years after the series’ finale, Downton Abbey sees the Crawley family in 1927 preparing for perhaps the greatest honor they’ve ever received: a royal visit from King George V and Queen Mary. During that visit, chaos reigns at Downton, as the occasion demands a special, even more formal touch than what's typical.
As per usual, manners are upheld, crises are averted and handled, and surprises are received at every turn, as Lord and Lady Grantham (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern), their daughters (Michelle Dockery and Laura Carmichael), and a variety of other fan favorite figures enjoy the festivities as best as they can.
As always, the magic behind what makes Downton Abbey so entertaining is the attention it pays to its ensemble of characters. While there’s always something important happening in the world of Downton, both the show and now the film never forget to marry these events with the people who are living through them.
Interestingly enough, the downstairs staff have more of a focus in Downton Abbey’s cinematic narrative. While the Crawleys still have quite a bit to do during the preparation for their royal guests, a good portion of time is given to the clash between the staff of Downton and that of the King and Queen. This means bringing the well-respected Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) out of retirement couldn’t have happened at a better time, making his return more of a functional necessity than just a mere spectacle.
It’s because of that storyline that Downton Abbey gets to have a greater sense of humor than it did on the small screen. Dyed in the wool fans won’t be disappointed when it comes to the romance and the intrigue that are still very much present in director Michael Engler’s film, but there’s definitely more of a sparkling comedic element that helps differentiate the events of the Downton Abbey series from the feature.
And if you’re a fan of the witty banter between Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess and Penelope Wilton’s Cousin Isobel, Downton Abbey even amps up that battle of wits with some cuttingly funny moments between the two. That’s not to say the film devolves into too much of a comedy, but rather that this movie version of Downton allows itself to have a bit more fun than usual.
With a theatrical film there’s usually a grander visual scope made possible compared to what’s achieved through a television show, and Downton Abbey doesn’t forget to open itself up to the cinematic experience. From the nostalgia teasing opening, we’re given more of a look at the world outside of the estate, and are gradually drawn straight through into a beautiful passage that showcases the film’s extended resources to great lengths.
As familiar as the setting of Downton Abbey is, seeing Highclere Castle through sweeping panning shots and awe-inspiring drone coverage lends a new light to the world that won over fans through six years of high quality television. At the same time, don’t think that this means the film goes Hollywood and throws in everything but the kitchen sink when it isn’t necessary. Engler and writer Julian Fellowes don’t forget what makes the Downton series special for a second, and it shows. While there’s a bit of an action sequence thrown into this new round of plottery, it fits the characters involved, and the overarcing story that’s been told since the first episode.
Rather than provide one simple grand finale that plays the greatest hits for the series it sprang from, the Downton Abbey movie sets things up for a big finish that could play out across at least one or two more theatrical entries. Considering the results of this first film, any excuse to revisit the Crawleys, their staff, and that sprawling estate they hold so dear is one worth using to make a sequel.
Overall, Downton Abbey is an exquisite return to the wonderfully familiar, while at the same time featuring a sharper wit and even more gorgeous scenery than ever seen in the canon before. Die-hard fans will love the chance to see how things are progressing, while newbies can easily see how this series found its audience in the first place. After a summer of blockbusters, this is a fantastic palate cleanser that stylishly gets people ready for the fall season.