The first question asked after a review of some sort of adaptation or continuation of a TV series is usually some variation on “Do I have to watch the original series to understand this?” We can answer that one firmly and unequivocally: YES. Trying to watch Downton Abbey the movie without having seen the series would be like trying to watch the final 30 minutes of Avengers: Endgame without having seen any Marvel movies. It’s that specific in its focus. Every character in the massive cast is briefly introduced with the assumption that you know their entire life story. Every character gets at least one line; some no more than that. All the characters are involved in one of the 300 or so plotlines. All of the plotlines comprise roughly ten minutes of screen time a piece. It all moves very quickly, touches on a lot of Downton Abbey history, and practically gallops toward a series of endings you could see coming roughly five minutes after the opening credits roll. It is unequivocally fan service – and it’s kind of gloriously, gleefully entertaining about it. You want a devious ladies maid? A shocking past? An attempt at a violent political act? The suspicion of criminality among the servants? A secret pregnancy? A secret illness? You want Daisy being ambivalent about a man? Carson being near apoplectic at some offense? Mary saying something incredibly snotty but sounding so chic about it? Edith whining? Cora making googly eyes at Robert? The Dowager and Isobel trading barbs? Molesley embarrassing the hell out of himself? Anna getting the job done? Everyone pitching in to save (pick one) the estate/someone’s marriage/someone’s inheritance/someone’s good name/the monarchy itself? It’s all there, big as life and twice as Downton.
We really don’t want to give you any more detail than that in terms of the plot. Not because there are any twists and turns and spoilers you need to avoid. Quite the opposite. We could give you simple phrases describing what each character faces in this story and if you’re a Downton fan of any standing, you will suss out immediately how the rest of the film will play out. That is kind of an awful thing to say about most films but we live in a post-Avengers age of storytelling, where the idea that the audience comes with a built-in set of knowledge about the characters and setting is considered something worth playing towards; something to build and structure an entire approach around. Any Downton fan expecting to go to this film and come out with something fresh, unexpected, or bold is going to be incredibly disappointed. Then again, we just can’t imagine why any Downton fan would expect those things. The very idea of Downton Abbey is based on a warm, non-threatening, pretty nostalgia for a time and place almost no one alive has ever experienced. The only point to doing a film based on the series is to simply ramp up all the shallowest factors of the concept and let them play out to the audience’s delight.
Creator and absolute master of the original Downton television series Julian Fellowes wrote the screenplay and all of his impulses, good and bad, were on display. If the guy likes a storyline, he’ll recycle it endlessly; hence the devious ladies maid and the aristocrat with a secret she’s hiding in plain sight. Barrow must fall in love with every gay man who crosses his path. Branson must always unsettle the family with his scary Irish ways. The monarchy must always be the be-all and end-all of everyone’s life, upstairs and down. It didn’t have one surprise in point of view, dialogue, setting or plot development. It wasn’t even surprising that every storyline was rushed and given the shortest possible time to unfold, since Fellowes had a similar short attention span during the show’s run.
And yet we smiled and clapped and laughed our way through the whole thing. Fellowes and director Michael Engler (bringing a long TV directing career to good use here) knew their jobs were mainly to provide the Downton-philes with the purest, pharmaceutical grade Great House porn and they delivered it in spades. The cinematography is lush and golden, the music swells to ever more epic levels, the gowns are that much more intricate and meticulous, and the jewelry budget has CLEARLY been expanded many times over. Every flower, place setting and country estate view is beautiful. Every person looks nothing less than amazing in every scene. But no one performance stood out; no one scene was truly electrifying. None of it had to be. It moved like a smooth but very quickened season of television with a fat budget to play with. It was comforting and fun and we would recommend it to any fan of the show. As cinema, it’s pretty but mediocre. As delightful fan service, it can’t be beat.