For the six seasons it was on the air, Downton Abbey was a comfort blanket of a TV show. Downton Abbey was a charming melodrama whose plot worked at a glacial pace. While the show was full of “drama,” the stakes couldn’t have been lower. In the TV of the early 2010s, Downton Abbey was an outlier, amongst the tense dramas of Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead popping up on networks. Downton Abbey was a calm respite for those who wanted a quieter, thoughtful story about British tradition and aristocracy.
Premiering less than four years after the show aired its last episode, Downton Abbey the film is little more than fan service – an opportunity for the audience to watch what is essentially a two hour episode together in the theater. While Downton Abbey was always a decidedly slow burn, stretching out simple stories for an entire season, the film iteration has to cram as many plots and characters into the mix as it possibly can. The result makes Downton Abbey overly stuffed, and showcases the hollowness of most of the stories told at this estate, not only in the film, but in the TV show as well.
Taking place two years after the last episode, Downton Abbey begins with the Crawley family receiving word that the King and Queen will be visiting Downton. The arrival of royalty has most of the servants downstairs in an excited panic, while the Crawley family seems just as concerned about the arrival of their cousin Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), who had a falling out with the family years ago.
This bare-bones plot exists so that Downton Abbey can be full of secondary stories throughout. When the Royal Staff arrives downstairs, the Downton crew is told to stand aside, which causes them to have a very tame revolt. Upstairs is mostly catty chatting between Violet Crawley (the show’s MVP, Maggie Smith) and Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton), which is honestly most of what the audience will be there for anyways.
Downton Abbey takes up the first half of its runtime with simply preparing for arrival from the King and Queen. There are cleaning montages, glimpses of silver being prepared, stories about having too many groceries and attempts to move chairs in the rain. Even compared to the TV show, Downton Abbey gets into the minutiae of getting the house ready in a way heretofore unseen.
Of course it wouldn’t be Downton Abbey without some ridiculous story threads, as occur with the aforementioned revolt, and Tom Branson (Allen Leech) trying to stop an assassination, while also proving to the family that he’s been living with for a decade to still trust him, and falling in love with Lady Bagshaw’s maid, Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton). There’s a lot going on in Downton Abbey, yet none of it truly matters. Downton constantly hints at a worst possibly scenario, but then always takes the slightest, simplest solution. Spread out over the course of a season, this doesn’t seem that egregious, but filling in a two hour movie with a season’s worth of stories that each resolve themselves with ease is often laughable.
Downton Abbey in its second half does get back to the great focus on the relationships and the touching dynamics that are rich when they receive the spotlight they deserve. Tom’s courting of Lucy gets back to the show’s early days and how sweetly the show portrayed young love. Violet’s frank discussions with the head of Downton, Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery) presents the cyclical nature of such estates, the love that is shared but rarely spoken in this family, while also setting up for a sequel. Even the formerly evil butler, Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) – the only character with a massively changed arc over the series – gets a rare moment of happiness as he’s allowed to be the person he’s bottled up inside.
These character dynamics have always been the heart and soul of what makes Downton Abbey compelling, and when series creator and screenwriter Julian Fellowes and director Michael Engler focus on them, it reminds of Downton working at its peak. But unfortunately, Downton Abbey also packed with superfluous stories that go nowhere and resolve with ease that is reminiscent of Downton at its worst. Downton Abbey has always been a balance between soapy nonsense and heart, and the film is no different. Thankfully, the heart wins out in this film adaptation, but just barely.