Run time: 2 hours, 3 minutesDirector: Michael Engler
Stars: Hugh Bonneville, Jim Carter, Michelle Dockery, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton
Downton Abbey: The Movie is the next best thing to a new season of the phenomenal PBS hit series about the gratuitously sumptuous home of Britain's aristocratic Crawley clan, who now reluctantly accept the fact that it's 1927 and that social change threatens their delightfully traditional way of life.
But nothing actually does change at Downton Abbey, or else its 120 million fans might riot. Almost all the original cast is back, along with a few newcomers. Sisters Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Mary (Michelle Dockery) are still a bit snippy, though now Mary can't look down on Edith, who married a marquess and lives in a house that makes Downton look like Brad Pitt's trailer behind the drive-in in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.
TV's most beloved grownup character, Downton's dowager countess (Dame Maggie Smith, 84), keeps her chin high, trading haughty insults with her rival Isobel (Penelope Wilton, 73), and concealing an enormous secret fans will want to hear.
They — like everybody at Downton, upstairs and down — are on edge, because the King and Queen are coming to visit. What's worse, the Queen's lady in waiting, Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton, 63, in real life married to Jim Carter, 71, who plays head butler Carson), turns out to be yet another Crawley relation. And that Bagshaw baggage plans to give her inheritance to someone other than the dowager's son, the kindly, harrumphing, befuddled Robert Crawley, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville, 55). The nerve! But the dowager has a devious plan to thwart her. “Machiavelli is underrated,” she says.
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The lovable downstairs staff reveals its own Machiavellian side, thwarting the King's bulldog-like head butler (David Haig, 64, of Killing Eve), who's too snooty to admit he's a butler. “Excuse me, I am not a butler! I am the King's Page of the Back Stairs!” But at Downton, which he disdains, he demands to use the front entrance, and his staff breezily informs Carson and head cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol, 66) that they won't be needed, because the King's cooks and servants will handle the banquet at Downton — one of several big set pieces the show couldn't afford (including a train-station scene, a parade and a high-stepping performance by the actual King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery).
The main plot about the Downton staff's machinations for the King's visit is broad, over-obvious comedy. It's upstaged by lots of little subplots. Once evil, now nice butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) finds love and a whiff of peril in a secret gay bar. Lord Grantham's widowed son-in-law Tom Branson (Allen Leech) gets a new love interest, Lucy (played by a beauty with the unbeatably British name Tuppence Middleton), who's about to make him the richest ex-Irish revolutionary in Yorkshire. There's an anti-royalist assassin, but he's less upsetting to the Downtonites than the mysterious thief who's stealing Downton's silverware, and infinitely less upsetting than the butler Molesley (Kevin Doyle, 59), who's so verklempt to meet the royals that he gives her the world's most embarrassing curtsey. (Doyle based it on Theresa May's notoriously awkward curtsey for Queen Elizabeth.)
The movie is not as good as a new season would be, because there's no time to give everyone a subplot, the King's retinue are cardboard characters we don't care about, and everything is a bit rushed. But the clothes are more sensational than any you saw on TV, fans will forgive any flaws, and newcomers may see what all the Downton fuss was about. What we all need these days is a good, soothing immersion in a kinder, gentler, more stable world. Downton Abbey: The Movie feels like a nice, warm chamomile bubble bath with a cup of fresh tea. Don't overthink it. Sink into it and luxuriate.