Downton Abbey: Low Drama at High Tea

It isn’t uncommon to make a feature film based on a beloved television series. The studio already owns the rights, the actors are already on the payroll, there’s a built-in audience and it can tie up the story for the fans. Enter the latest TV series made into a film, Downton Abbey, starring the original cast, written by Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park, 2001) and directed by Michael Engler (Downton Abbey, the series, 2010-2015; Netflix’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, 2015-2019) The result of the original cast, original writer and original series director working together again is a film that’s a seamless cinematic edition of where the series left off in 2015. 

Downton Abbey. Dir. Michael Engler.

The plot is simple. King George V and Queen Mary inform the Earl of Grantham that they are coming to stay for one night at Downton Abbey, which sends Lady Mary and the servants into conniptions. Fellowes has the writing chops to take this simple plot and make it interesting to the viewer. It is reminiscent of Fellowes’ script structure for Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, in which the main story is frequently interlaced with subplots and multiple points of view. This structure keeps the viewer interested and keeps the story from getting bogged down. 

The original cast slipped back into their roles with aplomb. There are verbal spats between the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) and Isobel, Baroness Merton (Penelope Wilton). Lady Mary and Lady Edith manage to get along. And Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier), now butler of Downton, stands up for himself and finds a measure of contentment. 

What sticks out to this critic is how the staff and upper class adhere to the prescribed social order. It’s 1927, a time of technological and social change all over the world, yet it leaves Downton untouched. Any conflict or difference of opinion is strictly managed within the pecking order. There is a mild staff rebellion, which was entertaining, yet even that occurred within their social positions. 

Downton Abbey. Dir. Michael Engler.

Make no mistake. If you weren’t mad about the series, the film may not interest you. Some viewers compare watching Downton Abbey to sinking into a bubble bath or eating a tray of salted caramel truffles- decadent, comforting, an indulgent treat amid daily life. It’s beautiful to look at; the costumes are flawless. It’s a low angst story as the stakes aren’t as high in the film for the Granthams as they were in the TV series, which showed tangible, serious real-life events in the early twentieth century, such as the sinking of the Titanic, World War I and how the Spanish Flu epidemic impacted everyone at Downton. The film was not tied to a particular historical event nor was there any weighty conflict to lift the film out of comfort watch status. Likewise, in the series, the characters’ choices had consequences that fueled growth and created further conflict. In the film, there isn’t a lot of change. If anything, characters bound themselves even more to their social positions. 

Downton Abbey is definitely a comfort watch and there’s nothing wrong with that. Current events stress out many people and it’s important to take a break when you can. Watching a film that’s beautiful to look at, with characters that are decent people and where the viewer knows everything will be alright in the end, can be part of a self-care arsenal. This film fits that bill nicely. 


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