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Downton Abbey the movie pulls off exactly what it offers, no more, no less. For die-hard fans of the smash hit Brit costume drama with the comforting naivite of the ‘70s BBC show Upstairs, Downstairs, and the biting wit and intrigue of Robert Altman's last great film, Gosford Park (Written by Abbey creator Julian Fellowes), there's a lot to be enthralled by and fall in love with here. For anyone else who might not know the show at all or, like me, has a passing familiarity with it, the movie, which operates like a sped-up seventh season rather than a narrative fit for single feature consumption, probably won't mean much. Of course that doesn't mean that I couldn't see the value in it for the fans.
Walking into the movie, I thought I was thoroughly unprepared and figured that I'd be lost most of the time. It turns out that I've seen enough of the show in periphery while my wife devoured it with utmost pleasure during its original run starting in 2010, that I was able to follow along with the continuing storylines of these beloved characters. It was also very helpful that the producers decided to include a witty and fun prologue where Jim Carter and Phyllis Logan, the devout butlers of the titular mansion, Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes, respectively, do a quick recap of the first six seasons. Although, this was at the press screening, so I don't know if the regular showings will contain it.
Fellowes, who also wrote the screenplay to the feature, comes up with a clever structural glue to give this otherwise episodically plotted affair a core to hang onto. The king (Simon Jones) and the queen (Geraldine James, who looks so much like Vanessa Redgrave that I actually thought it was her for half the runtime) of England are coming to Downton Abbey for an overnight visit, and the structure of the film basically covers the planning stages of the stay and the overall stay itself.
The clash between the extra stuffy and full of themselves royal help who practically take over every duty in the mansion, and the loyal crew we've known to love over the years, who see their involvement in serving the king and queen a tremendous personal opportunity, is the most fun sub-plot and the one that should be most accessible to newcomers, since it barely has any connection to any previous storylines. The heist plans that the platoon of butlers and cooks conceive in order to keep the royal help at bay brings the most levity to the piece, culminating in a hilarious bit where one of the butlers tries to explain the absence of the regular help to the royals and manages to be charming while also appearing to muck everything up.
As far as clear character arcs go, the most engaging storyline involves the chauffeur-turned-aristocrat Tom Branson (Allen Leech), whose disdain for royalty was well-documented in the show, and therefore presents a nice opportunity for character growth once the royals arrive. A rushed sub-plot concerning an assassination attempt on the king, with a predictable switcheroo centered on Tom, could have been fleshed out if this storyline was handled during an entire season, but his unintentional courtesy towards the royals, as well as a budding romance with a mysterious maid turns him into as close to a protagonist as we'll get in this ensemble piece. Pretty much every established character gets their moment to shine, and don't worry fans, of course we get oodles of Violet Crawley's (Maggie Smith and her caustic wit) juicy one-liners, which Fellowes obviously knows is a must for fans.
Apart from a couple of lush crane shots during the opening credits, Downton Abbey is not necessarily a cinematic experience, and quickly adopts the aesthetic and production values of the show. In that sense, it could have easily been dropped on TV, like the recent Deadwood movie on HBO. But of course that doesn't mean that it won't offer a great time in theatres for fans, and some amusing bits for newcomers. As long as you bear in mind that my rating is for the fans.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com