Released: 12th September
Seen: 20th October
Downton Abbey hit TV screens in 2010 and from the moment that it started it was a monster hit, racking up between 9 million and 12 million viewers an episode over the course of its six year run. It took home Emmys like they were on sale. Fifteen Emmys over six years is insanely impressive for a show that wasn’t made explicitly for American audiences. It starred some of the best actors in the UK, including the icon Dame Maggie Smith in probably one of her most beloved performances. The show ended in 2015 with a Christmas special and… I’ve never seen a single episode. I just never got around to it, despite my absolute adoration of Maggie Smith, so I walked into this film with no knowledge of anything beyond “It’s about fancy rich people and the servants who keep them from dying of starvation” so we’re going to talk about if this movie works without having seen the source material, which is often going to happen with movie adaptations of TV series. Short answer? Yeah, kind of works… for the most part
The movie itself has a very simple plot, almost comically simple. King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) are coming to Downton for a royal dinner and everyone has to prepare for that. Of course the problems pop up when the royal staff turn up and try to take over, which upsets the staff of Downton Abbey. What follows is a myriad of plotlines from attempted assassinations to pregnancies, inheritance and secret children and even a subplot about a secret gay bar. All of these plots are either continuing from the series, setting up a sequel or here and… well, we’ll get to that. Point is that while the main focus is on this royal dinner, we keep veering off onto little plot detours just for a nice little jaunt, they never really matter that much in the long run but that’s kind of the charm of the movie. Things happen, it’s quite nice and pretty and I have a good time but it’s not going to matter in the long run so I can just relax.
There is something kind of farcical about the main plot… literally, it’s the plot of a farcical comedy to have the servants preparing dinner and trying to keep the royal staff away so that the Downton servants can have the glory. They even do some of the farce elements of tricking the staff into leaving for London, locking the important people away in their rooms while the dinner is going on. Of course, because this is a movie full of British people with stiff upper lips they never go full farce, but you can see the elements there. Indeed, there are a lot of plot moments where you can see the elements of something forming and they just don’t go all the way with it, possibly because the British stiff upper lip prevents them.
Normally that would kind of bother me, plots that pop up half formed and have no bearing on what happens just feels like lazy writing but there’s something about this movie that almost makes me forgive these moments. There’s a scene where someone literally tries to assassinate the king, which you would think might be a major plot involving a major character. Nope, it’s a short scene that involves a film-only character named Chetwode (Stephen Campbell Moore) and once the assassin is subdued before he can even fire a shot, that plot really stops meaning anything. This happens a few times, plots pop up that would probably be good plot ideas for an entire movie or episode of the series and they’re dealt with in under 6 minutes… and I’m kind of fine with it. It’s weird; the calm soothing tone of the movie makes it easy to just move along with them.
It also helps that the film is gorgeous, the sweeping shots and elaborate sets make for a soothing visual treat that embraces the higher budget and expectations of a movie. It’s all part of the film’s plan to just put you at ease, get you nice and comfortable so you can just enjoy what’s going on without thinking too hard about it. It’s so weird that I could easily nitpick the structure of this film, how some side plots feel pointless and how it never pushes to any real extreme… but that also kind of feels fitting.
This isn’t one of those films with extreme emotions or bawdy laughs, it’s a nice simple film that’s there to serve fans of the series and maybe give them a little bit of closure. It’s absolutely accessible for people who didn’t watch the original series, but you’ll probably get a lot more out of it knowing the relationships of everyone involved beforehand. This is what I lovingly think of as a Nana movie, something you take your grandmother to because you want some time with her and it’s unlikely you can convince her to join you in seeing the new Zombieland movie. This film is fine, it’s nice, it’s very easy going and never really challenges the audience. It’s a couple of hours you can just switch off and relax and considering how 2019 is turning out to be a year of exhaustion, we could all use a moment to switch off and relax.