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All Very Proper

Michelle Dockery
Michelle Dockery
Focus Features
 122 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed ByMichael Engler
Starring: Michelle Dockery, Maggie Smith
Downton Abbey

As one who has in the past started to watch a long-running daytime soap opera that had been airing for many years, I can tell you that there is somewhat of a learning curve involved, a period of several episodes in which new viewers try to get their bearings and figure out who’s who and what’s going on and whether to stick it out or just change channels. I imagine there would be somewhat of a similar reaction for those who never saw an episode of the TV series Downton Abbey but then wound up in the theater watching the movie. But, in all honesty, I’d guess those viewers would be few and far between, a group consisting mainly of film critics and plus-ones who got roped into going with a Downton Abbey follower. I can’t speak for them, but for those who enjoyed the series, as I did for six seasons, this movie provides a welcome and entertaining (presumed) finish to the series.


For anyone unfamiliar with the show, the Downton Abbey TV series followed the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family, owners of the title estate, and their servants who lived under the same roof but on a completely different social level. The series began, quite literally, with the sinking of the Titanic, a significant plot point and went well into the 1920s. Even though the series finale in 2015 did provide a degree of closure for the characters, widespread public acclaim and the availability of nearly all the cast members eventually led to this movie. The producers wisely commissioned Oscar-winner Julian Fellowes, the series creator, to write the screenplay, and David Engler, who helmed several episodes, to direct the movie. The result is a film that feels like a natural extension of the series, rather than a tacked-on cash grab.


The year is 1927 (about 18 months after the series finale), and the King and Queen of England have decided to pay a visit to Downton and spend the night there. Naturally, the household is both excited and nervous about the occasion. The Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and daughter, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), begin making the necessary arrangements. Troubles begin when the royal servants arrive and try to take over, much to the dismay of the Downton staff, who face being relegated to their quarters for the duration of the visit. Along with the royal entourage come their security officers, who are interested in the Earl’s widowed son-in-law, Tom Branson (Allan Leech). The native Irish Branson is no fan of the monarchy and might try to express those ill feelings or worse.


The other primary subplot Downton Abbey involves the Earl’s cousin, Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton, who did not appear in the TV series), who has announced her intention to leave her entire estate to her maid rather than the Earl, her closest living relative. While the Earl himself isn’t too upset by the news, his mother, Violet (Maggie Smith), is quite perturbed by what she considers her cousin’s disloyalty. Since Lady Bagshaw is the Queen’s personal secretary, she comes along on the visit, and Violet schemes to set up an appropriate confrontation with her cousin.


Of course, television series have a big advantage over movies when it comes to character development. Downton Abbey aired for six seasons and 52 episodes. That gave the writers plenty of time to follow the various characters through their individual triumphs and tribulations and watch them gradually morph into the people they were at series end. Also, the writers could concentrate on a few characters in each episode, leaving the others merely to lend support (or, in some cases, not appear at all). 


Fellowes and Engler did not have that luxury in a two-hour movie. So, instead, for the most part, they took the characters as they were, trusting that the audience would know enough about their likes, dislikes, and motivations. For longtime viewers, the movie thus becomes an extension of the series, like an extended-length special episode with a larger budget. But because this movie is, in all probability, the farewell for Downton Abbey, Fellowes had to try to cram in meaningful screen time for each of the main characters. At first, the strain shows, with people showing up with little to do as far as the actual storylines are concerned. Instead, the script gives them busy work—bits of business that don’t advance the plot but still allow the audience to reconnect with longtime friends. Needless to say, that makes for a first hour of the movie that moves fairly slowly.


After the arrival of the royal family, the film moves more briskly, and the various appearances of the main characters generally serve to advance the plot. In several cases, this means that potentially life-changing events occur. None of these events should come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Downton Abbey or, indeed, more than a passing acquaintance with films in general. But still, the net result is that the movie feels much more than a mere placeholder; indeed, it serves as the next chapter in the lives of several characters. 


Downton Abbey hasn’t become highly popular with its fans just because of its characters and occasionally soap operatic storylines. It is about British aristocracy (and, in this movie, royalty as well), which holds a tremendous fascination for American audiences. The film doesn’t scrimp in the visual delights it provides to the audience, with glamorous and perfect period costuming and production design. But, more than that, the TV series had the ideal embodiment of English aristocracy in Lady Violet Grantham and the ideal actress to portray her in Maggie Smith. 


Smith easily steals the film here, with Fellowes setting her up to deliver one great zinger after another. He won an Oscar for a similar period look at the aristocracy in Gosford Park (in which Smith also appeared), and he’s in fine form here. At one point, Violet’s primary adversary and foil, Isobel (Penelope Wilton) asks Violet whether she’s an expert on a particular subject, to which Violet replies, “I’m an expert on every subject.”


That line pretty much sums up my feelings toward this movie. I freely admit that those who are not fans of the series will probably not regard it as highly, but for me, this film, like the TV series before it, expertly covers its territory. The material isn’t exactly new (the TV series Upstairs, Downstairs covered much the same ground 40 years ago), but no TV series has ever done it more stylishly and masterfully. The movie manages to bestow several genuine rewards to its viewers, showing the future for characters that we well realize we won’t have the opportunity to see. Even so, Downton Abbey has been a great ride, and this movie is a fitting conclusion.

In this clip, Maggie Smith dishes out some dirt on a distant relative.

Read other reviews of Downton Abbey: 

Downton Abbey (2019) on IMDb