Two and a half out of four starsTaking place two years after the last episode of the PBS series of the same name which ended in 2015, “Downton Abbey” does two things movies adapted from TV shows rarely achieve: it will please the established fan base while making sure the uninitiated can easily figure out what came before.
If you’ve never seen the show, the first five minutes of the opening credits alone will intimidate you. Close to three dozen cast members are listed, and as we are to discover in the initial quarter hour, all of them have medium-to-major speaking roles. That’s a whole bunch of characters to keep track of and it is to screenwriter/producer/former show runner Julian Fellowes’ credit that — as long as you pay attention — understanding the plot and the players will not be a terribly tall order.
Rather than the usually stuffy and starchy productions we’ve come to expect from both the TV and film divisions of PBS, “Downton Abbey” uses the same period piece blueprint for what is essentially a well-mannered soap opera. The original logo for the show pictured a silhouette of the above and below ground portions of a sprawling castle, insinuating the royalty and their help were on equal dramatic footing. That is indeed the case for this film.
Rather than corral the majority of the original cast back for a couple of back-to-back extended episodes, Fellowes concocted a feature-length story guaranteed to satisfy any serious anglophile: a royal visit. It’s not the most original premise, but the mere thought of King George V and Queen Mary (the grandparents of Elizabeth II) having a sleepover at Downton sends everyone into a blissful tizzy.
For Earl of Grantham Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) and his American-born wife Countess Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern), the visit is a big deal. They are certainly pleased but not nearly as much as the ecstatic bliss shared by the butlers, cooks and servants charged with getting the estate ready.
The first of only a few subplots involves Robert temporarily bringing back retired head butler Charles Carson (Jim Carter) to head the mission, which displaces his successor Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier). Robert correctly believes Carson has more leadership abilities which might be too much for the emotionally tentative Barrow to handle. Properly insulted, Barrow proceeds to petulantly pout for a moment and then devote some much needed time to his private life, most of which is spent deciding on whether or not to come out of the closet.
In short order, Carson and the cooking staff have their own feelings hurt and egos bruised when they learn the king and queen — in much the same manner of modern touring musical acts — have a traveling “road crew” who arrive at various temporary destinations ahead of them to ensure things are done as it is at Buckingham Palace.
The entourage includes a chef, chief butler, principal housekeeper, a valet and several waiter/servers. Being as this is likely to be the only time most of them will ever see in the flesh or breathe the same air as their majesties, the long-serving Downton staff is understandably crestfallen but ultimately devises a semi-devious plan to bask in their share of the royal limelight.
A stab at danger/intrigue involving a family member with something to prove and a mysterious royal watcher falls flat almost immediately — mostly because it so entirely predictable and force fit.
The final and most interesting subplot involves Robert’s mother Dowager Violet Crawley (Dame Maggie Smith) engaging in a game of tight-lipped, cat fight chicken with her blood relative Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) who plans on willing her considerable estate to a maid of mysterious lineage who also serves as a possible love interest for a longtime cast regular.
Based on the exit comments after the sparsely attended press screening by two millennial females and admitted “Downton” junkies, the movie was exactly what the target audience wanted. Conversely, an older-than-millennial female press member unfamiliar with the show didn’t care much for the film, which is pretty much with the reactions for most films based on TV shows.
Fellowes and veteran TV director Michael Engler (a few “Downton” episodes, “Party of Five,” “30 Rock,” “Sex and the City”) succeeded inasmuch as they made it easy for newcomers to understand what was going on but making something easy to follow doesn’t always translate into making people like it.
It’s not going out on a limb to surmise that the films’ distributor (Focus Features) correctly assumed they’d make a profit on a film with a hefty built-in audience waiting in the wings. And PBS hopes they’ll enjoy probable collateral spill-over when some newcomers become true believers and decide to watch the entire series on demand or, better yet, plunk down some serious coin on the various box sets.
One more bonus for the “Downton” faithful: there are just enough plot points left dangling at the end of the movie to warrant a sequel. You can bet if this film makes even a minor profit, there will indeed be another installment. The sun hasn’t likely set on “Downton Abbey” just yet.