Review: ‘Downton Abbey’ Continues a Posh, Foreign Tradition

dfn_focusfeatures_downtonabbey_poster_300The British tradition of “service” is entirely foreign to those of us who were born in the U.S.A. Perhaps that explains the enduring appeal of British television shows and motion pictures depicting the class differences that exist between those who are served and those who serve in grand country homes owned for centuries by wealthy, privileged families.

By extension, then, it’s easy to appreciate why the elegant and charming Downton Abbey delighted so many of us when it was first broadcast in the U.S. on PBS in January 2011. The series quickly caught on, showcasing a bygone era in the early 20th century as a wealthy family and their friends carried on their lives in the “upstairs” of a huge mansion in the English countryside, while the family’s servants carried on their activities largely in the “downstairs” quarters.

The series carried on for six seasons, coming to a satisfying conclusion in 2015. Die-hard fans, however, may now rejoice in an all-new film that, though it is in no way “necessary” from a story standpoint — the series didn’t leave any major threads unresolved — still proves to be an entirely enjoyable, if somewhat abbreviated, reprise of the themes and characters developed throughout the show’s long run.

The occasion is a one-night visit by the King and Queen of England to Downtown Abbey, leading to much fretting by the Crawley family (upstairs) and the servants (downstairs) as they care for their multiple, various responsibilities. All the surviving principal characters from the series show up, allowing for an update on their circumstances and confirmation that they are still alive.

Scripted by series creator Julian Fellowes, who won an Academy Award for writing the similarly-themed Gosford Park (2001), the film version touches all the expected bases, giving the wittiest lines to dowager Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) and not introducing any unexpected elements, nor, frankly, much of anything that is fresh or new. Thus, the film is almost exactly as might be imagined, once the inciting incident is introduced in the first few minutes.

Michael Engler, who helmed four episodes of the series, directs with an experienced hand. He has been directing TV shows since the early 90s, and it shows — again, he doesn’t bring much new or noteworthy here, but that is not what is required for this big-screen reunion.

The real stars of the show continue to be production designer Donal Woods and costume designer Anna Robbins, as well as all those who assisted them to bring period furnishings and clothing to such brilliant, vibrant life.

Beyond that, there’s not much to say, except that I’d forgotten about the show’s treatment, and glamorization, of a life “in service.” It is perhaps impossible for me to fully appreciate why anyone would consider serving others to be the crowning achievement of their lives, rather than work to be endured with as much of a positive attitude as possible, but perhaps this is why the series, and now the film, have proven to be endlessly fascinating for non-Brits.

The film will open in theaters throughout Dallas and surrounding communities on Friday, September 20, 2019.