“A royal visit is like a swan on a lake,” says a newcomer to the Downton Abbey servants’ quarters. “Grace and serenity above, demented kicking down below.” It’s a visual metaphor that Julian Fellowes used several times in interviews when the show he created a decade ago was sweeping the world. In the belated film adaptation, Fellowes gives it to the King’s Royal Dresser (Max Brown). The recycling of a good line signals that film is going to deliver a lot more of the same that was delivered by the TV show—serenity and kicking.
The opening sequence playing behind the opening credits shows a letter being written in Buckingham Palace and making its way by train, car, motorcycle and foot to the lord or the manor as an even more majestic version of the TV show’s theme plays out. Shots linger on the sides of train cars and vans to remind us that the British postal service is called the Royal Mail, and in this case is conveying a royal missive.
This reverence for monarchy and tradition is what Fellowes and his TV show were all about. Even the former chauffer and Irish Republican, now son-in-law Tom (Allen Leech) can admit he respects the Crawley’s love of the monarchy even if he is not much of a royalist himself. Such values were intriguingly nostalgic when the show premiered in 2010, and are hopelessly out of touch in 2020, with scandals swirling around Prince Andrew and Prince Harry. But being in-touch is never what Downton Abbey is all about. The film is not really concerned about the future, but rather about preserving traditions, despite subplots suggesting that things may get better for gay men and women who have children out of wedlock.
These are just two of countless subplots packed into the film. The scripts for the first three seasons of the TV show were published in book form, and many of the scenes clock in at two pages or less. That kept a 45-minute episode moving along at a fine clip, but with a two-hour running time, it can be overwhelming.
The main plot involves a suddenly announced visit by King George V and Queen Mary to Downton. The importance of the guests serves to bring back characters who had left the big house, namely Carson and Molesley (Kevin Doyle, who steals the show with his giddy nervousness). Maggie Smith, of course, is back and gets all the best one-liners. There are also newcomers in the form of the King’s Dresser (Max Brown) and a lady’s companion (Tuppence Middleton) who serve as dual love interests for single members of the household. But despite the fresh faces, the film rarely gives more than what fans want—more of what they got from the TV show.
Maggie Smith – Violet Crawley
Michelle Dockery – Lady Mary Talbot
Matthew Goode – Henry Talbot
Tuppence Middleton – Lucy Smith
Joanne Froggatt – Anna Bates
Imelda Staunton – Maud Bagshaw
Elizabeth McGovern – Cora Crawley
Kate Phillips – Princess Mary
Allen Leech – Tom Branson
Geraldine James – Queen Mary
Mark Addy – Mr. Bakewell
Laura Carmichael – Lady Edith
Sophie McShera – Daisy Mason
Hugh Bonneville – Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham