Prove your humanity

Downton Abbey  (2010) is a British TV drama set in early 20  century England, on a country estate of the same name. It follows the lives of the household—both the nobility and the servants colloquially referred to as upstairs and downstairs—from 1912 to 1926. The series finished in 2015, and Downton Abbey (2019) can best be described as a cinematic epilogue to the series. The film itself is set twenty-one months after the events of the finale, so familiar faces abound, but there are few new ones in the mix.

And before we begin, a full disclaimer: I watched a season and a half of the series—for research purposes, of course—and now I’m a bit of a Downton tragic, so proceed at your own risk.

From the outset of the film it’s made clear this is the same old Downton Abbey that we know and love, just translated onto the silver screen. As a slower, more sedate version of the show’s main theme plays, we wind our way from London out across the English countryside, following the path of a mysterious letter. As we do, the opening credits assure you that yes, you’re in capable hands—all the original cast will be reprising their roles in the film. The music swells, and the camera crests a hill, and there it is: Downton Abbey. The opening fades out as the letter reaches its destination and Lord Grantham proclaims: “The King and Queen are coming”.

The dreamy pacing of the introduction is lost in an instant, as everyone—nobility, servants, and villagers alike—are sent into a terrible frenzy. The movie keeps up this frenetic sense of urgency for much of the first half as preparations are made in anticipation of the royal arrival.

I won’t go into the details of the plot beyond the inciting action—part of Downton Abbey’s draw is its delightfully twisty drama. Suffice to say, the movie was written, produced and directed primarily by the showrunners and as such it retains that classic Downton Abbey formula: there are about a dozen (I’m not exaggerating—there’s probably more) intricate plots strands running together over the course of the movie, all interwoven with the main plot. You would be forgiven for thinking it would be impossible to juggle this many separate subplots, but while the action can get a bit dizzying a times—there are a fair number of smash cuts—the movie is well-paced and each arc gets plenty of time to shine.

The subplots themselves are all as dramatic, tense and engaging; just the sort of thing one expects from Downton. But while the main thread of the royal visit is certainly compelling, it suffers somewhat from being a less satisfying part of the narrative than the separate character subplots. The characters might have been in a tizzy over the royal visit, but I was far more interested in seeing what Lady Grantham was getting up to.

While Maggie Smith—who plays the formidable Dowager Countess—reportedly hoped to see her character start the film in a casket, fans will be pleased to see that she does not. And despite her reservations, Smith’s character is in impeccable form for the film, and it shows—the theatre erupted into laughter for almost every one of Lady Grantham’s choicest remarks. Unfortunately, it did feel like the writers leant into this aspect of her character a little too much, to the point where much of her dialogue sounded less like conversation and more like a series of witty one-liners. Despite this, her arc was by far one of the most emotional—her final scene in the film is a real tear-jerker.

Photo by Mark Neville, Vanity Fair

While Lady Grantham was a predictable star, it was Tom Branson who stole the show. Allan Leech shone, as did the character himself. Despite his Irish republican nature—something oft remarked upon as the royal visit approaches—Branson manages to do the crown a great service. More than one, in fact.

Branson as a character lacks the airs and graces of his fellow peers, and it is both fascinating and refreshing watching his emotions play out across his face. Allan Leech does a wonderful job of communicating Branson’s thoughts—if you watch him carefully enough, it is easy to tell at the exact moment he realises one of the key plot twists. The twist isn’t particularly surprising, but it is wonderful as an audience member to see your suspicions confirmed by a character as they also come to the same conclusion.

Each plotline is wrapped up in a nice neat bow, and almost every character gets a fitting happy ending. It’s more saccharine than I would have expected from Downton, and the decided lack of open-endedness to the conclusion feels a tad lacklustre, considering the nature of the series. But there is, at least, a little bitterness to counteract the too-sweet ending.

Would I recommend going to see this film? Well, yes and no. The film is excellent—it is as polished and precise a piece of media as you can get, and it would pass even Mr Carson’s exacting standards. If you’re a fan of the show, I cannot recommend it enough, as the film feels like a final love letter to the fans who have stuck with the series for every one of its six seasons. But for those who aren’t caught up, beware: there are spoilers ahead.

However, if you’re not a fan of the show, I suggest you spend your time watching something else. This film isn’t intended to be a standalone piece, and while this isn’t necessarily a fault, it does limit the audience somewhat. Overall, this is a must-see for fans, but not for anyone else.

Downton Abbey and its royal mania arrive in cinemas today!