For six years, we were blessed with the adventures (or misadventures if you will) of the Crawley’s and their servants in the lavish estate known as Downton Abbey. A fictional earldom led by Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his lovely wife, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) with their two eldest daughters Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery) and Edith Pelham (Laura Carmichael), the Marchioness of Hexham (their youngest, Sybil would die during the third season of the show to the collective horror of the fanbase), they are the undisputed leads of the franchise. However, they are by no means alone in leading the story, and like each season of Downton Abbey, it is the depth of the supporting cast on which the story stands.
One of the benefits that come from being a film continuation of a long-running television series with an ensemble cast is that, save for any new editions, every character is a known entity. From the former scullery maid Daisy (Sophie McShera) to her beau Andy (Michael C. Fox), to Mr. Molesey (Kevin Doyle) and his eccentricities, you know these characters and you love them. Okay, some of them are more beloved than others. Yet, by knowing them, you can get straight to the heart of the story which is… a royal visit.
Well, a royal visit and a handful of other running plot lines are introduced and dealt with in quick order over the two-hour runtime. Movies, versus television shows, have less room to breathe with their plotlines and their character arcs, but when you have a defined goal in mind, you can easily make those beats into something with more meaning. Downton Abbey (2019) does that in strides.
From the familiar pan up to the storied estate to the lavish dinners, withering glares, and cutting remarks, you know what to expect from a property tied to Downton Abbey and its long-lasting franchise. When we are first introduced to Imelda Staunton’s Maud (Lady Bagshaw), who is the Queen of England’s Lady-in-Waiting and a cousin to Robert Crawley (Lord Grantham), you can already tell that the jokes about her previous on-screen relationship with the Dame Maggie Smith (the Dowager Countess Grantham) will be mentioned as often as possible. Just in case it wasn’t clear at first, allow me to reintroduce you to the longstanding rivalry between Dolores Umbridge and Professor Minerva McGonagall. Instead of spells being flung left and right, they have barbed words – the sting is still prominent. Tying together as one of the overall plotlines is the driving question, who is going to inherit the estate owned outright by Maud Bagshaw – eagle-eyed viewers may have identified the recipient around the same time that the other characters do.
From there, the political machinations known for England’s upper class unfold with a kind of subtlety that would make a cat blush.
Amidst the main plotline of the impending royal visit, Tom Branson (Allen Leech) the former chauffeur turned husband of Sybil Crawley, is given his own major subplot as a mysterious figure pops up in town asking unnerving questions about Tom’s past beliefs, the upcoming visit, and his moral views. Danger lurks around every corner when royalty and nobility are involved. But this allows Tom to really shine around the periphery of the other major storylines like he always has as a man between the world of the upstairs nobility and the downstairs staff. By keeping this theme going, it forms a necessary bridge that connects two otherwise disparate storylines.
As mentioned earlier, movies have less time to focus on the minute details, but Julian Fellowes still manages to pull out some powerful moments with his limited runtime. One might recall that the strained relationship between Mary and Edith was a massive plot line throughout the entirety of the original series, and while they have few scenes to themselves, you can see the massive shift already. By the time they’ve reached the finish line and Mary delivers her most snarky compliment to her younger sister, you can’t help but laugh and smile at how far they’ve come.
The same must be said for Violet Crawley (the Dowager Countess of Grantham) and Isobel Grey (the Lady Merton), who started the television show as bitter adversaries over the future of Downton Abbey and the Earldom, to unlikely friends who manage to trade barbs with smiles throughout the film as they work to solve the mystery surrounding Maud Bagshaw and her estate.
One notable absence is, of course, Matthew Goode’s Henry Talbot – the racecar aficionado played by an in-demand actor. At least he appeared, unlike Lily James’ Rose Aldridge. His brief screen time serves to reinforce the strength of his relationship with his wife, Mary.
With their established characters, quirks, and ideologies, the action can almost entirely write itself. It doesn’t, and we see the long list of people who go into writing that script and making sure it is fine-tuned to perfection. It is completely believable that the servants of Downton Abbey would take immense offense to the Royal staff and their brusque handling of what is already a stressful situation. Watching the staff decide to essentially mutiny against the Royal Staff was a massive highlight, proving that no matter one’s station, cutthroat is just the name of the game in the world of the Crawley’s.
Other details that fill out the subplots range from Edith’s dress being delayed to Tom’s growing interest in Maud Bagshaw’s maid Lucy (Miss Smith, as the Dowager Countess of Grantham, will have you know), to the jealousy displayed by Andy towards the plumber over Daisy, and Thomas Barrow’s quarrel over being waylaid as butler and his burgeoning relationship with one Mr. Richard Ellis. There’s a lot going on in this film continuation, but it all ties together nicely by the time the credits roll.