Return Visit, by Bob Connally

24 Sep

Three and a half years ago, when Downton Abbey’s final episode aired, series creator Julian Fellowes left all of his characters – yes, even Edith – in a good place in their lives. For the Crawley family, the year was 1926 and, as a longtime fan of the show, I wanted to leave everyone just as they were. I was quite apprehensive at the first mention of a movie, worried that Fellowes might be tempted to have Edith’s husband Bertie choke to death on a potato or that my favorite character Mrs. Hughes might be crushed to death by a bit of scaffolding. Downton Abbey was never Game of Thrones, but enough characters we knew and loved died tragically that there was reason for concern.

Right off the bat, I will say that if the names above mean nothing to you, I would not recommend watching the film on its own. The story itself is simple enough for anyone to follow but this movie spends no time re-introducing characters. Fellowes and director Michael Engler (who helmed a handful of episodes) assume we know who everyone is, what their stations in life are, and how they relate to one another. Really, this is just as well considering how many main cast members there are.

Picking up one year after the end of the series, the film opens with a nice sequence that follows a letter from Buckingham Palace and through the halls of Downton before arriving in the hands of Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville). The letter announces that King George and Queen Mary will be coming to stay for a night at Downton during their upcoming tour of the country. Naturally, the Crawleys and the staff are incredibly excited to host the royal family but it’s going to take an incredible amount of work on everyone’s part to prepare for the visit.

Having this as the central story allows for each individual character’s story (and there are of course many) to be tied to it. As was the case on the show, the servants downstairs are given just as much screen time as the Crawley family upstairs. The majority of the downstairs storylines are played for laughs as they are forced to deal with the snobby staff of the royal family. Most of it works, though it does occasionally get just a little too silly and there is one subplot involving a broken boiler that could have easily been edited out completely. As ever, Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) are highlights here. Poor Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) meanwhile is the star of probably the funniest- and most excruciating (I had to look at the screen through my fingers)- scene in the film that I dare not spoil here.

As for the storylines involving the family, the most intriguing one is dealt with and resolved before the film even reaches halfway point which is odd but honestly dragging it out wouldn’t have been to the movie’s benefit. There’s a royal dinner to prepare!

A lot is packed into 122 minutes but that was typical of an episode of the show. Really, there’s nothing inherently cinematic about this film as it plays out the way the annual 2 hour long Christmas specials did. This is not at all a complaint. A great many filmmakers in this situation would have felt compelled- even pressured- to force a few large scale sequences into a movie based on a TV series, as if to say, “See? We justified putting this on a big screen!” But Fellowes and Engler wisely resist this temptation. The closest thing there is to an action sequence here is a brief foot chase followed by a scuffle that is even more brief and nothing about it would have felt out of place on the show.

That feeling that nothing that happens would have felt out of place on the show- even some of the weaker subplots- is there through the entire film. This is a movie that plays it safe at every turn and is designed to please fans who started watching Downton Abbey nearly a decade ago. Normally I wouldn’t endorse playing things this safe or pure fan service but if Fellowes had tried to do something radically different then it’s not Downton Abbey anymore. No one is interested in a Downton Abbey movie that “subverts your expectations.” Approach this as you would a new Christmas special (minus it having anything to do with Christmas) that leaves the door wide open to further Christmas specials and you should enjoy this a great deal.

Downton Abbey became an international sensation thanks to its massive cast of rich, wonderful characters and their relationships with one another. The trials and tribulations of Anna and Mr. Bates, the schemes of Thomas Barrow (a character who has grown tremendously), and the razor sharp wit of Violet, played by the incomparable Maggie Smith, are just a few of the elements that created a worldwide obsession. Everyone is here and is woven into this story in a way that with only a few minor exceptions doesn’t fall into the trap of, “We had to give them something to do.” That in itself is impressive and it really is a pleasure just to spend more time with these characters. Minor pacing concerns go out the window here in a way they normally would not.

It’s on the big screen now, but this is still the Downton Abbey you know and love. Would you really want it any other way?

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