PLOT A visit from British royalty upends the daily routines of a country estate.
CAST Maggie Smith, Allen Leech, Robert James-Collier
RATED PG (some adult themes)
BOTTOM LINE A big-screen bonus episode of the popular series that should thoroughly satisfy fans. Opens Sept. 20.
Fasten your waistcoat and get ready to pop 'round to the Crawleys' for another visit: "Downton Abbey," the film version of the PBS series, has finally arrived. It opens in theaters on Sept. 20.
What "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker" will be to science-fiction fans later this year, "Downton Abbey" might be to the "Masterpiece Classic" set. Written by series creator Julian Fellowes, "Downton Abbey" may not traffic in the kind of high-bombast spectacle we expect from Lucasfilm or Marvel, but the goal is the same: a cultural-cinematic event meant to transport viewers to their favorite fictional universe. What's more, "Downton Abbey" aims to deliver the same kind of gasp-inducing plot developments as an "Avengers: Endgame" — at least in its own elegant, understated way.
Originality is not the film's strong suit, though fans of the unabashedly nostalgic series may consider that a plus. "Downton Abbey" begins just as the pilot episode did, with the delivery of a letter containing momentous news for Downton's patriarch, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville, returning as the loveliest elitist you've ever met). Then it was the sinking of the Titanic; this time it's the arrival of King George V and Queen Mary. The news reverberates upstairs in the palatial bedchambers of Downton, and perhaps even more strongly downstairs in the servants' quarters. What follows is a combination of light comedy, intrigue, soap-opera revelations and incremental character developments — in other words, less a grand finale than a Very Special Episode.
With roughly two dozen important characters, "Downton Abbey" has to make some tough decisions. The excellent Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary is here, though mostly without series star Matthew Goode as her husband, Henry Talbot. Instead, it's Allen Leech's Tom Branson, the Irish chauffeur turned aristocrat, who drives the film's most important storylines, including yet another one about an inheritance. Also taking pride of place is the butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier), one of the series' most complicated figures – and, as a gay man, an important reminder that Olde England was not so jolly for everyone.
As always, Maggie Smith remains the heart and soul of this bygone world. As Violet Crawley, a matriarch as ruthless and pragmatic as any head of state, and driven by much the same sense of duty to something larger than herself, Smith gets all the choicest lines — or maybe her impeccable delivery just makes them sound that way. Penelope Wilton still shines as Violet's long-suffering frenemy, Isobel Merton.
Credit goes to director Michael Engler (an American!), who already had a few episodes under his belt, for creating a seamless add-on to a series that ended four years ago. In this current moment of class consciousness, anti-capitalist resentment and talk of socialism, isn't it perversely reassuring to know that Downton Abbey is still with us?