Maggie Smith shines as the Downton Abbey movie brings fans (and the Queen!) back into the Crowley family home.
It’s 1927, the sun is shining, and Lady Mary proclaims: “the day has dawned and the weather proved conclusively that God is a monarchist.” American viewers may bristle, but another day has dawned and proved conclusively that we still love our British soaps.
When the opening theme began to play, and the familiar towers of Highclere Castle came into view, I might have teared up. The PBS Masterpiece series, the top drama of all time for the public broadcasting service, had filled my Sunday evenings for half a dozen years. Now, creator Julian Fellowes and his family of ridiculously proper British aristocrats welcomed me back to Downton Abbey once more.
A disclaimer, dear reader: the Downton Abbey movie makes no effort to play catch up for casual viewers; this is a movie for the fans who have followed the soaring (and crashing) arcs from the start. I have to admit that my review of it will probably pass similarly. Grab your tea, and tune in!
How could Downton Abbey surpass six seasons of drama, romance, and devastating loss for one all-encompassing final adventure? Fellowes decided, in his feature film, to play the trump card: the King and Queen will be coming for a visit.
The preparations that ensue bring the whole gang back together. Tom Bransen, the cautiously Irish member of the decidedly British family, continues to manage the home with Mary, as sister Edith also returns home to assist. Even beloved butler Carson (you can’t have Downton without him) is pulled out of retirement in the frantic preparations for the upcoming royal stay.
The visit sets the stage for a very full, if not over-crowded, two hours. The two dozen that make up the core cast of Downton must each be given their own arc, or at least a moment or two on camera, and the movie is not short handed with shots of crowded kitchens, filled hallways, or seated dining tables to ensure everyone makes an appearance. Of the major cast of the PBS drama, only cousin Rose (played by Lily James) is notably absent. Everyone has returned to lend a hand, or at least to dance the evening away in a fabulous gown.
The rolling credits of family members and house staff means that no one person is given much to do. Each of the butlers and housemaids will play a part in a small servant rebellion against the uppity Royal staff that has come to stay, lead in chief by Mr. Bates and his wife, Anna. Lady Edith reels with the news of a surprise pregnancy, Irishman Tom finds himself caught in a would-be-assassination scheme, and cook Daisy discovers she is a bit of a republican herself. Lady Mary juggles the difficulties of an ever-emptier home, the King and Queen are mostly background ornaments, and Lord Grantham is off playing with his grandchildren or dog, I guess.
The one exception to the ever-rotating plots is Dame Maggie Smith’s delightful return as the Dowager Countess. Though I must admit I was shocked to hear that she would be returning for the film, Smith did not skip a beat in diving into Downton Abbey as the Dowager schemes against a distant cousin who is threatening to cut her son out of the will. Her snooty quips continue to steal hearts and scenes. “I never argue,” she informs her son, “I simply explain.”
The Dowager impressively fills the laugh lines while also managing to create space for the real reflection of the movie. The camera pauses on her for just an extra moment, as she watches the next generation take up residence in her home and her family name with a soft smile. As granddaughter Mary considers the future of Downton, and the part she will play in it, even considering giving up the maintenance of the costly home, it is the aged matriarch that offers both comfort and perspective. “You are the future of Downton,” she tells her prodigy. The Dowager’s days have come and gone, but there will be a place for Downton, and for Mary’s leadership of it, “as long as the house stands.”
“Save your tears for something sad,” Smith commands Mary after news of the Dowager’s poor health, “there is nothing sad here: I’ve lived a privileged and interesting life.”
And perhaps there is nothing sad in the conclusion of Downton Abbey. Sure, the great depression looms with each passing day, the Empire is crumbling, and the place of an aristocratic family like the Crowleys is becoming less and less promised. The England of Lady Mary is not that of her father, or her grandmother. But they have lived, and will continue to live, a privileged and interesting life.
Downton Abbey is, perhaps, predictable. But would we want it to end any other way? For fans looking to say goodbye to the British escapism we love so much, this latest installment offers a plot as carefully crafted as any Avengers movie, and everyone has assembled for it. If you’re a new visitor to the house: you might want to treat yourself to a few dozen episodes of catching up over biscuits and tea before joining for the Royal visit. It’ll be worth it.
As the movie ends and dinner guests gather to dance, Lady Cora smiles at her husband: “I do love our adventures.” Lord Grantham then spins his wife and says goodbye to the audience in the same moment: “but isn’t it fun when they’re over?”
Maggie Garnett is a sophomore studying theology and constitutional studies. She never argues, she simply explains. Send British period drama recommendations her way at firstname.lastname@example.org.